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This is your life, p.9

This Is Your Life, page 9

 

This Is Your Life
 



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5

  27 Elms Crescent,

  East Grinstead,

  West Sussex,

  England

  Dear James,

  Lady Diana Spencer got married to Prince Charles today, which beneath all the pomp and circumstances was just a normal family wedding and it’s good for tourism as well. A while after the engagement was announced she actually broke down in tears because she was so fed up with being photographed wherever she went, but I suppose you get used to that after a while. They say that all publicity is good publicity, but there must be exceptions, like the Yorkshire Ripper, for example, he can’t have got many more driving jobs after his name was in all the papers. But now that you are a celebrity, James, you just have to accept that the press are always going to be prying into your affairs. It’s a bore, I know, but I’m afraid that’s the price you have to pay; everyone is endlessly fascinated with every aspect of your life all of the time. That’s why I don’t mind that at the moment no one is the slightest bit interested in me. That’s actually a good thing, because one day I’ll look back and envy the privacy I have now. The total absolute privacy I am lucky enough to have at the moment, never being hassled by people ringing up for me, no one writing letters to me or expecting to see me all the time, or any of the time really. These are precious times for me, and I keep reminding myself of how fortunate I am.

  The important thing when dealing with the press is to keep your eyes open when they take the pictures. Obviously the East Grinstead Observer is only a local paper and a Fleet Street professional would never have used that particular shot of the school’s summer fete. But even if you do appear in the newspaper in a group shot with your eyes closed, remember no one pays it as much attention as you do yourself. Although in this particular case, everyone at school seemed compelled to point it out several times a day for far longer than would have been amusing if it had ever been funny in the first place, which it wasn’t, as a matter of a fact. It was very immature.

  Basically you have to remember that the newspapers need the celebrities, but the celebrities also need the newspapers. It is a special sort of relationship, what they call ‘a two-way relationship’ in which they both need each other as much as the other one needs them.

  Anyway, I have to dash now as I have so much that I have to be getting on with. I was going to start my project on the Tudors today but I decided that watching the royal wedding would be good background research, I’ll write again soon.

  Mine sincerely,

  Jimmy

  ‘Interview with Jimmy Conway for Sunday Times review section, tape one.’ My interviewer announced these words into her gleaming dictaphone and then placed the little gadget upright on the table between us. A little light flashed on and off continuously throughout our talk. I presumed this indicated that the machine was recording, although part of me worried that it had a built-in lie detector that caused the red light to come on every time I made something up.

  ‘So, Jimmy, question number one: how long have you been a professional stand-up comic?’

  ‘Er, well, I’m not a professional stand-up comic. I was making all that up because I’ve always wanted to be somebody. Unfortunately I’ve grown up to be not the slightest bit interesting or significant, so I thought I’d try lying and pretending that I was and see where that got me.’

  This answer flashed through my head but I decided not to give it because I feared it might possibly set the entire interview off on the wrong foot and spoil the atmosphere.

  ‘Well, I’ve always seemed to be able to make people laugh,’ I mused. ‘But I suppose my first professional engagement was when I was eight years old. My older brother told me an obscene joke that I didn’t understand and then promised me 50 pence if I recited it in front of all my relations at Christmas. I had two of my presents taken away and he still owes me the money.’

  This much at least was true. It was the only time I fell: she didn’t believe me.

  ‘Did you find it was a good way to deal with the bullies at school? That instead of fighting them you could deflect their aggression by making them laugh and so comedy became a matter of survival in, like, the playground jungle?’

  ‘Er, not really.’

  ‘Interesting, that’s fascinating,’ and she made a note of this as if it was a critical piece of information in the analysis of a psychiatric patient. I felt very important to be under such scrutiny. When I ordered a pint of Guinness she said, ‘Are you Irish at all, Jimmy?’

  ‘No – it’s just they don’t sell draught bitter so I thought I’d have a Guinness.’

  ‘I see, I see,’ and she nodded significantly as if I’d just described my childhood experience of seeing my mother having sex with my scoutmaster.

  We were sitting in a London club with huge armchairs and more tiny waitresses where Arabella was a ‘founding member’, whatever that was, and I was the wide-eyed newcomer who had to stop himself going from table to table collecting up all the designer matchboxes that were given away free in every ashtray. She had rung me up a couple of days after the funeral saying she would like to do a whole piece on just me, prompted by my ‘return from the States’. She made it sound like the Beatles getting back together. ‘When are you free?’ she asked. ‘Ooooh, let me see . . .’ and I stared at the Arctic tundra of endless blank spaces in my diary.

  ‘I can only do Thursday next week,’ she interjected. ‘How’s Thursday for you?’ As it happened there was something in my diary for the following Thursday. It was Waitangi Day in New Zealand. It was a clash, but one I was sure we could work around.

  ‘Thursday’s fine,’ I said.

  ‘Is Soho House all right with you? I usually find people prefer to meet somewhere in the centre of town.’

  The centre of town? I thought. Which town’s that then? I’d never heard of a club called Soho House in the centre of Seaford, that was for sure. The Royal British Legion, maybe, but I’d stopped hanging out there recently, you know; it was so full of cokeheads and media poseurs. I guessed Arabella must mean that town called ‘London’ that people were always on about; we arranged a time and so on the Thursday I travelled to the capital and decided to head towards Soho and then look for a House.

  ‘Are comedians really very sad people inside?’ she asked me next, biting the end of her pencil meaningfully. ‘It’s just a little theory of mine,’ she added.

  ‘Hmmm – interesting,’ I said. ‘You mean like that song “The Tears of a Clown”?’

  ‘Yes. Exactly. “The Tears of a Clown”, possible headline maybe,’ she said, leaning towards the dictaphone. ‘I think those lines are so true, don’t you? About making a joke or two, but deep inside being blue.’

  ‘That’s “The Tracks of my Tears”.’

  ‘Tell me, talking of music, do you think it’s almost as if comedy has now become the new rock and roll?’

  I was sure I had read this line somewhere before but I was making such an effort to be polite and positive that I may have overenthused at the brilliance and originality of this observation. I think she was quite flattered. She said she’d never met such a modest performer before.

  ‘OK, now the sixty-four-million-dollar question.’ I braced myself a little as she gave a grin in anticipation of playing her ace of trumps. ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I wondered if this wasn’t really a sixty-four-million-dollar question. I think it may not have even been a £6.40 question.

  She declared it was time for a coffee and I gratefully agreed to join her.

  ‘Excuse me!’ she called to the waitress. ‘Could we have two cappuccini please?’ Two cappuccini, she said. Not two cappucinos, but two cappuccini. That would be the correct Italian plural, I supposed. To think I’d been saying it wrong all this time.

  Agreeing to do this interview had been the moment I had crossed the rubicon of premeditated deception. Before this point any dishonesty on my part had been spontaneous and unrehearsed, often just obligingly confirming what other people had wanted to believe. But when Arabe
lla had called me and said that she wanted to do a whole feature just about me, I’d been so completely flattered and delighted that I’d agreed to bring along some of my reviews from America. And then as I reflected on my predicament, I felt dangerously out of my depth. I was just a nobody who would have liked to be famous in another life; I had to leave it at that. But the following evening I was sitting alone in my house in Seaford watching an old black and white film called All About Eve and it was a revelation. We trace the rise of a famous star and discover she got her big break by cheating. A film about fame, made in Hollywood, saying how it was done. You cheat. It was suddenly so obvious.

  How naïve I had been all these years to think that a commodity as precious as fame would be doled out on the basis of merit. Of course not. It is ruthlessly embezzled, stolen, hijacked – and, in my case, why not forged? ‘Phoney fame’ – was such a thing possible? Maybe they were all pretending; maybe they had all cheated and lied their way into the celebrity party before quickly blending in with the other guests. For once you were in, you’d made it; you became the genuine article by default. Like millionaires who had stolen their first ten thousand, you just needed a head start on everyone else.

  So a few days later I proceeded to print out some of the reviews I had received from various newspapers in America; reviews that it had taken me all weekend to write. I didn’t manage to think up any jokes that I could share with the readers, but my famous ‘fish’ routine was mentioned in every notice. In fact, in terms of the pure creativity I’d always sought, I seemed to have finally found my métier. Inventing an elaborate account of how successful I was saw me at my most creative ever. Pasting my words into a page copied off the New York Times website was a simple enough operation, but the photographs that Arabella later requested took all night. There was Billy Crystal with his arm around me, while Steve Martin looked on and laughed as I pulled that funny face that always cracked them up. It had required all my skill and patience to digitally decapitate the anonymous American producer who’d originally held centre stage of this picture I’d found on the internet. Using Windows Naughty Fotoforger XP, I imported my own goofy head from my personal photo collection and after much touching up and resizing it looked perfect. Billy Crystal and me, we go way back – the camera never lies, does it? By the time I met up with Arabella, I had constructed myself an entire career in the United States (I latter added ‘and Canada’ – the pointless detail seemed to add a ring of truth). People moaned that these days public figures were more interested in spin than substance. Well, I was going for no content whatsoever – I was going to be 100 per cent spin and zero substance.

  Arabella was impressed by the material I gave her. She accused me of hiding my light under a bushel. I restrained myself from saying, ‘No, I am not hiding my light, there is no light, there’s just a bushel and that’s it.’ I elaborated upon my reasons for not doing television, which I could already sense would be the hook for the whole piece. As part of my anti-commercial, ‘back to the roots of stand-up’ philosophy, I explained that I’d gained my reputation in the States by turning up and doing impromptu sets at various venues, never publicizing an appearance beforehand or indulging in the vanity of a one-man show at some prestigious theatre. My appearance was always a surprise, a bonus. That way, I explained, I could never be cynically marketed or end up being hijacked by agents or the industry money-men. I was delighted to see how impressed Arabella was with all of this as I explained I was already doing the same thing over here. I was not on the bill of any comedy club, you wouldn’t find my name in the listings of any magazine, and yet, I modestly conceded, my reputation seemed to be growing at the grassroots level where it counted most- among the fans. And I handed her another picture of me, this time on stage at the Comedy Store in London, and through the smoky haze you could make out the sheer delight in the faces of the audience doubled up in laughter as I stood impassively at the microphone.

  I could feel the size of the feature growing as she gazed over the material. In this cynical world of desperate media wannabes, here was someone who seemed to be consciously rejecting celebrity. Privately I thought I could probably get quite famous doing that. I was particularly pleased with the way I had accounted for there being no records of my gigs. You never knew when I might turn up at Jongleurs or the Comedy Store or the Buzz in Manchester – it made the currency all the more precious for those that had seen me. I reckoned it was completely foolproof.

  ‘So when can I come and see you?” said Arabella. Well, almost completely foolproof. ‘Are you all right?’ she added. ‘You look a little pale.’

  ‘No, no,’ I stammered. ‘As I say, I don’t tell people in advance. It’s a question of whether I happen to turn up on the night that you’ve gone to a comedy club.’

  ‘Yes, but my deadline is two weeks’ time. I can’t write this piece without seeing your act. So if you tell me where you’re planning to make a surprise appearance, I’ll make sure I’m in the audience.’

  ‘Er, no, that’s not how it works.’

  ‘You don’t honestly expect me to do a whole feature on you without ever having seen you perform, do you?’

  ‘Um, no, of course not,’ I mumbled. ‘Er, I’ll give you a ring when I know where I’m on next week.’

  As I stared out of the train window on my way out of the metropolis, I wondered what on earth I could have been thinking. Dusk was falling as I was whisked past hundreds of ordinary homes; through the windows you could make out the electric glow of the television sets, every family gathered around the hazy blue hearth, all focused on the same formats and celebrities. Would my place always be on this side of the screen? I was back at the language school tomorrow with a new batch of the French teenagers who regularly came over on shoplifting exchanges. It was my job to teach them useful English phrases such as, ‘I must have put it into my pocket by mistake,’ and, ‘Oh dear, did I forget to pay?’ I felt depressed at the prospect of starting with another new class as I sped away from the bright lights of London. And then I realized that one radical option remained open to me. Not cheating. It was crazy, I know, but the more I thought about it, the more merit there seemed to be in this unconventional plan. I would do it the fair way. A journalist from a national newspaper wanted to do a big feature on me. Even better, she was very keen to see my act. How many struggling comics get such an opportunity? OK, I didn’t have an act to see, but this was quibbling over mere details. Her deadline was two weeks away. What was to stop me writing a twenty-minute stand-up set and performing it at a comedy club? People had always said I was funny. If I was good, then Pd get a glowing write-up in a national newspaper. If I was rubbish, well, at least I would have given it a go. I could retire gracefully and come up with another harmless way of drawing attention to myself, like claiming I was the killer in a high-profile mass-murder investigation, perhaps.

  I had been to a comedy club in Brighton and so I knew the form for all the wouldn’t-be comics who’d attempted to start their careers there. Amateur hopefuls were given the opportunity to get up and do an open spot immediately after the interval. The audience usually granted them a short period of time to demonstrate whether they were funny or not. This varied from anything between two and twenty seconds, and then they were booed, heckled, insulted or pelted with half-full plastic beer glasses. What on earth was I waiting for? It was time to make my famous ‘fish’ routine a reality.

  First of all I would have to book the gig. Rather than risk being seen by Nancy or Dave or any of my friends in Seaford, I enquired about open spots at some of the smaller London comedy clubs. I finally booked myself in for Wednesday week at a club in north London – which gave me ten days to write and rehearse the act, and Arabella a couple of days to write it up afterwards.

  ‘No,’ she said when I rang to give her the secret details of my next appearance. ‘No, no, no, no, no. Wednesday’s not good for me. It’s Samantha’s birthday,’ she said in a tone of voice that suggested I too should have this notabl
e date in my diary between Martin Luther King’s and St Patrick’s. ‘There’s a crowd of us going to her house for dinner.’

  ‘But it’s quite late in the evening,’ I reasoned. ‘Come along afterwards. Bring them too, if you want.’

  ‘Can’t you make it Tuesday? Hang on – nope, book launch Tuesday, Thursday out again, Friday too late,’ and it quickly transpired that she couldn’t make any other dates either and so she reluctantly agreed to cut short her dinner party.

  ‘You will come, won’t you?’ I said, feeling significantly less important than I had when we’d last spoken.

  ‘Of course I’ll come. The review editor is taking a keen interest in this piece. “Comedy is the new rock and roll. But here comes comedy’s punk,” she said.’

  I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that – though it left me feeling that the stakes were raised even higher. So the next morning I finally sat down to start writing my act. I didn’t have to be in at the language school until the afternoon so I got some blank pieces of paper and tried to think of something funny. Observational comedy, that was the thing. ‘Have you ever noticed how hard milk cartons are to open?’ Hmmm. I had a feeling that this observation might have even pre-dated the advent of milk cartons. Something more up to date. Text messaging, maybe. Or digital television. ‘They’ve got a channel for everything now, haven’t they? Next they’ll have a special channel for .. . a special channel for . . .’ but I couldn’t think of anything for which they didn’t already have a special channel. Political comedy, maybe. ‘New Labour, eh? They’re not as left-wing as old Labour, are they!’ It didn’t feel very satirical and I screwed up the sheet only to find a used piece of paper underneath, completely blank except for the words ‘Scene Two’ written at the top.

  Half an hour later an idea was just starting to hatch when the doorbell rang and I could make out the unmistakable silhouette of Doreen Cutbush blocking out any light that might think of coming through the glass in my front door. There was only one thing you could think on meeting Doreen: This is a woman who loves miniature schnauzers. This was partly due to the fact that she sported a bright yellow badge the size of a teaplate bearing the unequivocal declaration, ‘I love miniature schnauzers’. But there was another clue that was hard to overlook: under her arms she was also holding a couple of panting miniature schnauzers – their moustachioed doggy heads were almost permanent features either side of her colossal waist-high breasts. Doreen was a figure from Greek mythology with a human head and body but with two doggy heads coming out from under her arms. In case you were in any doubt as to her feelings about miniature schnauzers, the big badge was backed up with an extensive collection of further schnauzer insignia: another thirty or forty little metal badges in the shape of her favourite dog breed or boasting membership of the Miniature Schnauzer Club of Great Britain pinned all over the front of her green gilet.

 
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