Harnessing Dad’s old ruse.
I met someone famous last week. I’m not saying who, that would be beyond vulgar, but the reason I bring it up is to highlight the broader issue of celebrity and the effect it has on those within its orbit. For example, I like to think of myself as a man of the world, perfectly able to hold my own in conversation with people I don’t yet know, and the odd sprinkle of wit and charm adequately greases the wheels for the recipient to feel they haven’t totally wasted their time. It’s a game of badminton, in which the shuttlecock of decorum is gently rallied back and forth until someone cracks and heads off towards the canapés.
Throw in the curveball of fame, however, and these unwritten rules of polite discourse go straight out the window. Any joy to be had from chasing a sentence to wherever it may lead is countered by the suffocating fear of coming across as a bit of a tit. The celebrity in question can usually spot this, helpfully discussing themselves until you are able to regroup, but by now you’re already on the back foot and the vocabulary of gibberish is all you have left to draw from. The more you try to address it, the worse it gets. I often witnessed this with my father, who loved to ‘drop in’ to his local and chat away with verve to those brave enough to approach him. It more often than not culminated in a bizarre face-off, kicking up the following complex algorithm:
Shameless self-promotion plus apparent good nature divided by loss of will to live if he talks about agriculture one more time plus please don’t buy me another pint, I hate beer and I’ve got an expensive bottle of Pouilly-Fumé open at home which I’ll tuck into after you’ve shut up, is the square root of continued local and/or national prestige minus face if I bail too early
Obviously, this is subjective. If I were to be so bold as to suggest an pertinent alternative for those soon to meet and greet someone in the public eye, perhaps it would be something along these lines:
Anonymity plus alcohol plus neutral meeting place equals bolstered confidence minus mutual reference points minus self-awareness plus alcohol plus alcohol divided by inability to remember celebrity’s focal work is the square root of something to talk about in the pub later divided by time taken to achieve same*
A more accurate formula probably lies somewhere in between. Something to do with the synthesis of courage and generosity from both active parties, the onus being on the former. For he/she may still recall a time spent on the other side of the tracks, whereas the latter is single-handedly navigating terra incognita and trying not to blush. And adding another alcohol to the above.
*algorithm does not apply to current Duke of Edinburgh
When he put his mind to it, my father had a great smile. It was one of those magnificently craggy ones, as pioneered by WH Auden towards the end of his own years, which dug huge trenchlines into the soft tundra of his face and suggested, whether it were true or not, that he was kind and genuinely delighted to have you as company. Yorkshire Television was quick to pick up on this most saleable of assets, so in pretty much every publicity shot taken from the 1980s onwards, you can see him attempting to squash his nose hard into the well of his cheekbones, like some sort of demented human Corby trouser press, whilst simultaneously keeping his eyes open and looking sexy. And, unlikely though this may sound, for the most part he pulled it off.
As the firstborn of four, I have inherited (to a lesser extent) something similar. When it first appeared I was horrified, so desperate was I to preserve the illusion of perpetual youth, and those appalling fissures, snaking their way across my cheeks like levees towards the ocean, became impertinent reminders of my own mortality. Which I bitterly resented. But as the years rolled on, I kind of grew into them, accepted them, and now I shall ruthlessly exploit them for my own financial gain. Hear me out:
I’ve only ever had publicity shots done once. It was back in the day, when I was trying to look moody and angst-ridden for an art-rock band which I fronted. The fact that we never got picked up, and that the photographs fell into the dustbin of insignificance, was clearly down to the fact that I was not yet ready to face the full-frontal glare of fame and fortune. And possibly because a previous night’s drinking had made my eyes look like pissholes in the snow. But now I am older, wiser and sly as you like. So, what if I harness Dad’s old ruse for the back cover of this book that I’m doing? That, instead of going all Charles Bukowski on you, I could make you believe I’m enormous fun to hang out with? Simply by wrinkling up my face! It works across the board: The oldies will think they can trust me, and the young people will find me endearing. Sexy, even.
Now, I’ve been practicing in front of the bathroom mirror, but I think the silver must have buckled. When I scrunch up one side (leaving the other unwrinkled and all come hither), it looks like I’m having a stroke. Yet if I go for both at once, the eyes are lost in a sea of unsightly crevices. And the eyes, as any fule kno, are the windows to the soul. I’ve even tried the direct approach, looking straight into camera with just a hint of crumpled world-weariness. But I just come across as a massive tool. And we can’t have that, can we?
*with 312 festive bonus words
Desert Island Discs – December 2014
Kirsty: Due to swingeing cuts the BBC has suffered recently, my castaway this week is alcoholic and sometime blogger Idle Eye. I know, me neither. His pithy and often self-deprecating blog has been read by an ever-decreasing audience since its inception in 2011, and he claims to be a mouthpiece for the very few disaffected, middle-aged misanthropes he manages to connect with. Good morning, sir.
Me: Good morning, Kirsty.
Kirsty: I understand that you no longer make any money whatsoever from your work. Is this true?
Me: That’s correct. I started by writing for my brother’s pub, but it soon became pretty clear that the stuff I put out was having an adverse effect on his clientele: They stayed away in their droves. The rest is history.
Kirsty: So what’s the incentive, if you don’t mind me asking?
Me: Well, Kirsty, the strapline for the whole shebang is “Getting it off my chest and onto yours”, which I suppose is the main thrust. And I nicked that from Peter Cook. Sadly, there isn’t an original bone in my body. But I soldier on.
Kirsty: Let’s have some music.
Me: My first would have to be Instant Street by dEUS, which hit me like a bullet when it came out in 19…
Kirsty: We don’t have that one, I’m afraid.
Me: Oh…Well, how about Heavenly Pop Hit by The Chills? The flagship band from New Zealand’s Flying Nun stable when they were at their…
Kirsty: Nor that.
Me: I thought you had these things lined up beforehand?
Kirsty: Look, Sarah Millican asked for Wham! if that’s any help. Work with me.
[You Drive Me Crazy – Shakin’ Stevens]
Kirsty: Thank you. Now, tell me about your drinking. You profess a disturbing reliance on Marlborough Pinot Noir in order to get your ideas onto the page. Would you describe yourself as a writer with a drinking problem or a drinker with a writing problem?
Me: I like to think of it as both. Although it’s clear which one would have to go if push came to shove.
Kirsty: I see. And do you think you could manage without?
Me: To be fair, there’s a lot of crap out there. And the telly’s getting better and better. So yes, I think so.
Kirsty: Let’s have your next disc.
Me: Can I have…
[We Are The Champions – Queen]
Kirsty: You mention your family in several posts. Tell me about the early years: Did they spot the signs of your forthcoming invisibility or was it something you had to work at alone?
Me: When you say ‘forthcoming invisibility’…
Kirsty: That, by your own admission, your efforts are widely ignored. “Like farting into a wind tunnel”, as you once put it.
Me: It was a symbiotic arrangement, I seem to remember. To have your ‘efforts’ overlooked as a young man does stand you in good stead for later life. In many ways it was a gift, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Kirsty: Forgive me for bringing this up, but we’re running out of time and we need a hook. Your father, a much-loved television and film actor, died last year. How did his tangible success, first realised when he was less than half your age, affect your confidence as an artist in your own right?
Me: Well, Kirsty, I see it like this: Success is very much like wine – Some of it can be enjoyed young (and some of it can be very good), but I think most of us would agree that in order for it to be at its very best, it needs to have sat around for a while.
Kirsty: But if you leave it too long, it gets tipped down the sink.
Me: There is that.
Kirsty: Let’s have some more mu…actually, let me do it.
[Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Band Aid]
Me: I hate that one, by the way.
Kirsty: Me too. But it’s your show.
Me: And I normally write 500 words, preferably less.
Kirsty: Just say it’s a Christmas Special. You can do whatever you like with them, trust me. Now, I’m going to give you The Complete Works of Shakespeare and The Bible to take with you. And a book of your choice: What’s it going to be?
Me: Well, it’s a toss-up between…
[Sarah Millican’s Support Group audiobook – Sarah Millican (signed)]
Kirsty: And a luxury too. You can have one thing on the island to make life more bearable.
Me: I’d like…
[You’re Never Too Fat For A Handbag – Sarah Millican white cotton tea towel (signed)]
Kirsty: And if you had to pick just one…ach, forget it.
Me: I already have.
Kirsty: Thanks for coming in.
Me: No, thank you.
Someone called William rang me yesterday. Before he got through, I screened the number: Unfamiliar, but at least not one of those 08547 deals which you instantly know will come with a three second delay, over which you politely say “Hello” twice despite your better judgement, followed by an upbeat recorded message giving you just enough info on that accident you had to prevent you hanging up on the spot. Which you do anyway.
In short, William’s prefix looked legit so I took the call, thinking it might be confirmation of my bank details from a new Nigerian business partner. His opening gambit was along the lines of “How are you?” Now, as this particular question rarely arises, be it from my siblings, employer or accountant, I was already putty in his hands. Next came the introduction. Apparently he is my personal wine advisor and was making a courtesy call based on the preferences made with my online account which, you may be surprised to learn, comes in at less than £200 per annum. He accurately noted that I enjoy wines from New Zealand, bless, and proceeded to suggest a few others that may have escaped my radar. And despite all prior knowledge of the ruthlessness of marketing and cold-call grooming, I began to warm to him. And he’s from Norwich.
How we laughed at the vulgarity of your supermarket Shiraz. And how effortlessly he dropped in the buyer’s sweet spot, being that place on the quality curve when you are no longer paying off taxes, duty and whatnot. The one when you go “Hell, I’m worth £2.50” and buy a couple of blue labels, as opposed to the plebeian red. And, in case I was in any doubt whatsoever, he reminded me that I would be fully refunded if his recommendations fell at all short. Geezer! I wanted to French kiss him down the phone, or at least ask him out for a pizza. This man knew more about me than my teachers from the 1980s or, dare I say it, my parents. And in my loved-up state, I saw us enjoying a mutual glass of an astonishingly rare Pinot under a wide Andalusian sunset.
But then came the crash. I nipped round to my friend Nick’s house not long afterwards who just happens to be a marketing guru and I told him about my new love, William, and how it felt to be understood so completely. “It’s not what you think”, I protested. He gave me the skunk eye, then the lowdown on Cute Brands and Upselling. You know, the sort of thing that companies like Innocent use to get you on team. And in an instant, the wonderful man-love I had experienced but hours before evaporated like the morning mist. I felt cheated, violated, abused. I thought this was different. I thought this was special. I thought this was personal. So I bought some more wine. The right stuff.
According to the internet, I may or may not have alcoholic neuropathy. Not the fully-fledged bumping into walls/khazi-bound variety, you’ll no doubt be pleased to learn, but there is some evidence of a tingly leg thing going on after an exceptionally enjoyable bottle of Pinot. Gruelling news, particularly as I am halfway through the arduous task of reducing a bottle mountain of barely palatable filth, bequeathed to me by my late father, in order to reclaim some kitchen shelf real estate. So, in the greater interest of my failing health and with a small nod to genuine altruism, I have decided to give away one of said bottles to any reader who can be arsed to ask for it. Yes, like a competition.
But which one? You are most certainly not having the 1982 Taylors port, and I wouldn’t wish a 2011 Vina Primera white rioja on anyone with a pulse, not even the ISIS vintners. I did, however, find a dusty old thing lurking at the bottom of the pile which, on closer inspection, turned out to be an ageing bottle of Merrydown cider, its blackened cork still wedged in tenaciously at the neck. A thrilling discovery by anyone’s standards, so much so I proffered this information to Merrydown themselves, along with a photograph and a discreet enquiry as to its age. And quick as a flash, I received an email from an equally excited Emma Vanderplank at customer relations, informing me that according to their archive, it probably dates from 1952. Or 1955. Or 1962. Whichever one, it’s proper old: Small wonder Dad laid it down.
So there’s the provenance, but what of the value? To this end, I delved deep into the guts of several online auction houses specialising in the sale and distribution of historic orchard fruit-based alcoholic beverages, and it turns out our little friend ticks all the boxes (matured in cellar/label still legible/stored outside mandatory fifty mile exclusion zone of anyone with a Somerset postcode etc…) And if I’ve got my sums right, it’s almost certainly worth between six and eight quid, give or take a few pennies (allowing for market variables and fluctuation thereof). Bearing in mind that you pay considerably more for the tat sold in convenience stores that doesn’t even have the patina of age, I would suggest to you this is a gift horse not worth looking into the mouth of. Not even a furtive glance from the other side of the paddock. To say nothing of its accruing potential if you so choose to lay it down for another fifty years. I must be mad, me.
Here’s the deal: I’ll post the photograph on the Idle Eye Facebook page (over there, on the right). You tell me why you want it (in the comments below). The winner will be selected by me, subject to bribes. You give me your address, I send it to you at my not inconsiderable expense, along with a picture of a hamster (UK applicants only – Not this time, Johnny Foreigner). Now, what are you waiting for?
In November 1922, Howard Carter & Lord Caernavon peered into the newly discovered tomb of Tutankhamun for the first time in over 3000 years, inside which were treasures beyond their wildest dreams. An incredible collection of objects were piled high in every chamber, patiently waiting for their passage to the afterlife where the owner would be judged on the quality of his offerings. Sadly, this was not the case when Chris’s House Clearance turned up at my dad’s gaff in Wales last week:
Chris: Can you see anything?
Helper: Yeah, loads. There’s about 80 teddies, some Xena Warrior Princess videos, a packet of Fisherman’s Friend, quite a lot of cardboard and a vibrating bed.
Chris: A vibrating bed?
Helper: Yep. And it’s got a remote. One for Sue Ryder, I reckon. Dirty sod.
He wasn’t far wrong. We all get assessed by the things we leave behind, and poor old dad didn’t do himself any favours in this department. And whilst I feel duty-bound to protect the modesty of my late father, it must be said that we, as a family, drew some not inconsiderable hilarity from the tale of the aforementioned bed. Apparently he bought it from a door-to-door salesman, on the understanding that it had massaging pads that would take care of his aching muscles as he lay recumbent. And for a few extra pounds, he could also purchase an attachment that opened the curtains at roughly the same speed that the head zone would raise itself up to a 90 degree position, affording the end user a magnificent view of the Welsh countryside as he made the transition from Nod to the new day. Which, of course, he did.
And yet it is some of the less significant items that remain the most poignant. The electronic alcohol sensor tucked discretely inside his medical bag, the WW1 ‘Magnapole’ compass that must have belonged to his grandfather (with his initials crudely scratched onto the face), the letter he wrote to his own father declaring gratitude and love despite their fiery differences, the half-eaten bag of Sports Mixture that came back from the hospital with his belongings. All these minuscule moments that say more about the man than what the lawyers cooly refer to as ‘chattels’, as if a life only has meaning by its monetary value.
I let Chris fill his boot(s). There was nothing at all left that really mattered, that I felt strongly enough to hang onto, that wouldn’t be served better by a new owner. But I did spend half a day sifting through photographs and selecting what I figured was an accurate, if edited, representation of a career spent largely under the public gaze. And a couple that weren’t. Ones in which we were actually touching when I was a child, something that didn’t happen much afterwards. And the big stuff I left for him. He’ll probably need it out there.