Sunday, 11 November 2007

In Praise Of Misanthropy

I am only likeable on the outside. Inside I am a misanthropist. My best days are the ones when I wake up safe in the knowledge I am not going to leave the house all day. My worst are when we entertain. Apart from family and trusted chums, I am one with the old Maori who said, “Eat up, guests may arrive.”

To be quite frank, I think the worse diseases on the planet are AIDS, cancer and Homo sapiens. I blame it on being labelled, quite early in life, as a “character”. It is a sad truth that, generally speaking, you only meet characters on the lower rung of professional ladders. They are rarely promoted. There are other disadvantages. Not only am I the subject of a vast anecdotage. If people have a scurrilous story that lacks a leading player I get the starring role. Perversely, it is equally annoying when, as happened this week, someone else was credited with one of my stories and prompted these thoughts.

My secret scenario is less amusing. At my Banquo’s Feast all the places are taken by people, mostly women, I have let down over the past three quarters of a century. Though the top of the table is reserved for my bloodhound Amy, who I had to give away at a time of extreme poverty and who shortly died, as I believe, from a broken heart and who I think and dream of constantly.

In the outside world, I am fondly described as “Pickwickian” or “Falstaffian”, depending on what people have been reading at the time.
I once foolishly asked the Welsh baritone Sir Geraint Evans what his inspiration was for the magnificent make ups he created for his operatic roles. He said: “If I had known you when I was doing Falstaff, I would have based it on you.”

I cannot spend five minutes in the company of an artist before he is drawing a caricature of me. My book on the Welsh painter Sir Kyffin Williams is coming out in February. It will contain a selection of the twenty or so cartoons he did of me during a long friendship. They are worth far more than I am.

I suppose I am easy to draw. Hand-knitted whiskers, belly like a spinnaker, literally an all round reporter as broad as I am long. 5ft 8ins and twenty one stone are not the ingredients of Adonis. Nor is there any escape. I do not believe in death and fear I am going to keep coming back as a tired joke.

Search hard enough and there is always one word which exactly describes a person. In the case of Bill Marshall that word was outrageous. I did not know what trouble was until I met Marshall, the Daily Mirror district man in Liverpool. He was a library of opposites. Lanky without being tall. A Lincolnshire lad with an American accent. Immaculate blazer worn with stained trousers, cowboy boots without socks, wild hair and an occasional beard. That was the picture I had when I saw him for the first time in the Liverpool Press Club a week after I joined the Daily Dispatch. Though we kept in touch until the weeks before his death and I loved him like a brother, we did not see each other for 30 years. Which may explain why I was able to have a successful career as an author and broadcaster. Had Bill still been around there would not have been time and I could well have been in prison.

I should have been warned when his wife invited me to a party in his flat at Formby and said, “Don’t bring Bill.” Getting barred from your own house takes dedication and a lot of effort.

There was the time he sold my passport and used the money to buy drugs for re-sale. But he wanted to be sure they were genuine. In those days Bert Balmer was Head of the CID in Liverpool and his deputy was a man called Jimmy Morris. They were both members of the Press Club. This night he passed me the drugs and said, “Go and ask Bert what it is.” So in his thrall was I that I went to the head of CID and said, “Bert, what are these?” passing him some curled-up leaves. “Bill sent you?” asked that excellent man, and then passed them to Jimmy. “What do you think, Jimmy? Rhododendron or Azalea?”

There was the time he bought a roulette wheel and made me go out and buy a black shirt and white tie and be the croupier. I thought they looked silly with a sports jacket but I always did what he said. Even when he got me to shave off half the News Chronicle reporter Jackie Yeadon’s beard as he slept drunkenly on the club sofa and prop him up still asleep on a parapet whilst Bill shouted: “Roll Up and see the midget with half a beard“ at the Saturday shoppers below in Lime St. Yeadon was small and majestic with it. During the war he had got extra meat by telling the butcher he was the captain of a midget submarine.

Anyway, I stood behind the wheel of a game I did not understand in the Press Club annexe and lost £45 in ten minutes and that was in 1953 when I was paid £15 a week.

He made up stories for the Mirror that nowadays would have got him an overnight declaration in the Booker Prize. Like the one about the girl who couldn’t afford the cruise her doctor ordered so she bought (or to be more truthful Bill did) 45 round-trip tickets on the New Brighton ferry.

Then there was the dog he tied to the railings of the Bridewell with a note attached to its collar which read “My daddy says he is going to shoot my dog when he comes home because we cannot afford to feed him, though I have given him my tea every night. Please give him a home.”
The story he wrote produced so many offers of a home the Daily Mirror phones were blocked for three hours.

It was catching. Even Balmer, the Head of CID, caught it. Every Saturday he would make up a story for us so we could claim a shift from the Sunday papers in our group. My favourite was a spin off from a fashion among criminals who had been in prison to have a swallow tattooed on the joint between thumb and forefinger. Bert told us the CID was worried the fad was being copied by juveniles. They showed they had been to reformatories by having a sparrow tattoo, Bert claimed, and all our offices fell for it.

Marshall struck when you weren’t watching. Years later when I lived in Chester, he rang me from Liverpool to say another of his many wives would be coming through Chester. Would I meet her off the train and give her dinner. “She is pretty upset,” he confided.

I met her and we had a jolly meal. Over coffee she admitted she needed cheering up and I said, “Yes, that’s why Bill suggested I meet you,”
I thought she was going to explode.

“Do you know why I am upset?” she said. “We were divorced this morning and that ******* turned up in his oldest clothes, pleaded poverty and I have got peanuts for maintenance.”

When I heard some days later that Bill had turned left at a level crossing and driven several miles along the Liverpool- Formby railway line I felt a pang of regret he hadn’t shared the experience with an oncoming express. But the feeling didn’t last. You could only dislike him for about five minutes.

There was this time when I was sleeping on the newspaper files in the Daily Dispatch office, where I worked, because I had no money for digs. He rang to tell me that Hoagy Carmichael was in town and we should go and pay him homage at the Adelphi where Hoagy (who for some reason he called Hoagland) had a suite.

Hoagy could not have been kinder. He invited us in and although it was a little after 10am poured us both giant Scotches. Inevitably Bill asked him to play the piano. Characteristically this very nice man agreed: but he wouldn’t play his signature tune “Stardust”. He said he couldn’t stand the damn thing and he wrote it. So for an hour or so he plied us with Scotch and entertained us on the piano with tunes, for which, he said, he had not been able to find a publisher.

A yelp from Bill brought the performance to an abrupt end. He had remembered that he should have been across the city covering an Assize trial.

“Anything I can do?” asked Hoagy, before I had a chance to warn him.
Bill said, yes, there was. He knew Hoagy didn’t like Stardust but he asked could he ring his news editor Roly Watkins and, when he came to the phone, hold the instrument over the piano keyboard while Hoagy played a few bars of “Stardust” and then said, “Hello Roly, this is Hoagy Carmichael. I am afraid I have detained your reporter Bill Marshall.”

Good as gold, Hoagy did as Bill told him. He played the opening bars down the phone and said his piece. There was a pause and then a suddenly angry Hoagy said, “No, this is not Bill Marshall, I am not pissed at half past eleven in the morning and I have no idea what is on at the Assizes.”

After the show that night, one of only two he did in Britain, he came over to the Press Club and once again at Bill’s command (by his time Bill saw him as his property) he played for the members.

After an hour or so he wanted to stop but Bill commanded him to play on. “Look Bill,” he said, “I get a thousand pounds for a concert.” ”Oh, it’s money you want?” sneered Bill, and promptly wrote a cheque for £1,000, which Hoagy pocketed and played on.

The next morning there was another call from Bill who wanted to know if he had cashed any cheques because one had gone from his book and his bank manager had warned him if he cashed any more cheques he would close his account.

I said, “Only the thousand pounds you paid Hoagy,” and enjoyed the panic I could feel down the phone. “We have to get it back,” he said, and off we went to the Adelphi.

Hoagy was full of apologies. “I cashed it with the hotel half an hour ago,” he said. In the minutes that followed I was repaid for all the indignities Marshall had heaped on me. And then Hoagy relented. “I haven’t cashed it,” he said, “but you cannot have it back. I am going to have it framed in my den to remember a great night.”

From my Dangerous Cuttings book

John Ambrose of Hemel Hempstead, Herts, was holidaying near Sydney when he found a spectacle case carrying the name of Keith Nursery of Bungay, Suffolk. When Ambrose returned to Britain he went to Bungay to return the case personally, only to discover its owner had emigrated to Australia.