Tag Archives: memory

Comedian Malcolm Hardee’s legendary escapades: the real truth remembered…

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

The legendary comedian Malcolm Hardee, man of mistake (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Tomorrow is the eighth anniversary of the death of comedian Malcolm Hardee – he drowned in a dock in London’s Rotherhithe in 2005.

When he died, Time Out wrote that he was “one of the great characters in the comedy business…his scams, scrapes and escapades will be talked about for years to come.” And they have been. The many stories about him have become legendary, sometimes confused and embellished upon. As the saying goes When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In his many newspaper obituaries and since then, many stories were re-hashed from his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cakewhich I wrote with him. So I know that a few of these re-hashed true stories, even though they were taken from an original, first-hand source, were mangled and embellished upon in the re-telling. And now, because the embellished versions were printed in reputable newspapers, they have become fact. History is whatever is written down.

Malcolm was part of Martin Soan’s Greatest Show on Legs troupe. Martin and his wife Vivienne Soan knew Malcolm well and one or both of them were around when many of the stories actually happened. I was round at their home a few days ago and Martin was telling me the full ‘Service Station’ story which does not appear in Malcolm’s autobiography. I had heard the story before – first from Malcolm – but never in detail before.

Martin Soan in his living room this week

Martin Soan in his living room this week

It all happened after a comedy gig at Cheltenham Town Hall when The Greatest Show on Legs – Malcolm Hardee, Martin Soan and Steve Bowditch – were travelling back to London in Malcolm’s dodgy car of the time… a second-hand London black taxi cab with a noisy engine.

“So we left the gig in Cheltenham,” Martin told me. “It was a taxi, so the back half was a sectioned-off compartment for the passengers. Malcolm was driving, Bowditch was in the front with Malcolm… and I was lying down in the back, trying to get some sleep.

“After a roundabout on an ‘A’ road just before Oxford, we pulled in to a small service station. I got up and said to Malcolm: I’m going for a piss, which I did – in a building separated from the main building. Meanwhile, Malcolm got out, filled the cab up with diesel, paid for it and I heard the throb of the taxi starting up.

“I thought, No… and it did flash through my mind… all those times that we threatened to leave each other at motorway services… I’d left my jacket, my money, everything in the taxi cab… and then I heard it move off.”

“This was in the day before mobile phones?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin, “There were mobile phones. Malcolm had his very first mobile phone. But I didn’t have one.

“When Malcolm and Steve shot off, I was running after them, waving my arms in the air. Then I heard them going round the roundabout and I saw Malcolm’s face only about a metre from me as I waved my arms. I was shouting Malcolm! Malcolm! Malcolm!, but he didn’t see or hear me.

“I couldn’t believe it. They shot off. I was in a shirt and it was mid-winter, around one o’clock in the morning. So I went back into the Services – it was just one of these small A-road ones – and said Is there a phone? Is there a phone!

“I got on the phone, rang Malcolm’s mobile and he told me later it had rung, but the battery went dead. So I rang up Vivienne, explained what had happened and she said Oh God-God-God-God! So then I was cold and I didn’t know what to do, so I started hitching.

“Later, Vivienne told me she was sitting at home (in Nunhead/Peckham in South East London) when the taxi cab pulled up outside our house. Malcolm got out of the cab, opened the back door and realised I wasn’t in there. Apparently he said to Steve in a calm voice: Martin’s not there.

“So Malcolm closed the door and Vivienne presumed he was going to knock on the door and say: We haven’t got Martin. But he gets back into the taxi and starts shooting off. Vivienne then runs downstairs and runs along the road after the cab shouting Stop! Stop! Stop! – This is now about three o’clock in the morning.

“She said: Where’s Martin?

“Malcolm mumbled: Dunno.

“Coincidentally, at this point, I ring up our house’s landline, Vivienne hears it, rushes back in and I say I’m cold! I’m cold! I’m very cold! How am I going to get back to London? and she says It’s alright, I’ve got Malcolm here.

“I’d got no money, no coat; I was just in my shirt and trousers. And Malcolm says on the phone to me: It’s alright. I won’t charge you for half the petrol.

“He was speaking to me from inside my house, where I should have been!

“I got home about 9.00am or 9.30am in the morning. I got to Oxford Circus in the West End, then walked home to Peckham.”

At this point, Martin’s wife Vivienne came into the room where we were talking and realised which Malcolm incident we had been talking about.

“I always thought,” I said to her, “that they’d driven maybe ten minutes down the road, realised Martin wasn’t there in the cab, turned round and gone back to collect him. I didn’t realise he’d had to make his own way home.”

“I heard the taxi pull up outside the house,” Vivienne told me. “I saw Malcolm open the taxi’s door, so I came downstairs to open the front door of our house for Martin and left the door on the latch for him, then went back upstairs and, through the window, saw the taxi drive off and thought Where’s Martin? I went downstairs again. Nothing. Nobody. Malcolm had just driven off.”

“No,” said Martin, “I remember I spoke to Malcolm when he was inside the house.”

“I think he just went off,” said Vivienne.

“Oh no,” said Martin. “Is this me inventing part of a Malcolm story? Jesus!”

“I don’t,” said Vivienne, “I don’t think he even bothered to…”

“But he did turn up here,” interrupted Malcolm.

“He did turn up here,” confirmed Vivienne. “He thought you were in the back of the taxi.”

“But,” said Martin, “I talked to Malcolm on the phone in this house. On my life. I could not write a punchline like that. He said, It’s alright. I won’t charge you for half the petrol. That’s what Malcolm said to me.”

“Wow!” said Vivienne. “All I remember is that you weren’t in the taxi. How did we get you home? Because Malcolm didn’t go back.”

“I got myself back by hitching,” said Martin.

“You were picked up by a maniac,” remembered Vivienne.

Long ago, in a place far, far away…

Long ago, in a place far, far away…

“Yes,” said Martin. “He was going so fast. He was coming back to London from Wales and he was tired and had been drinking. He was driving so fast like a lunatic and drifting off, dozing off, that I was actually holding the wheel for him as we were overtaking lorries. I was thinking At this rate, I’ll overtake Malcolm! He dropped me off at the start of a slip road onto the M25 motorway.

“And the top act at Cheltenham Town Hall that night had been?” Martin asked me.

“Jo Brand,” I guessed.

“Lee Evans,” said Martin.

“When he was a relative unknown?” I asked.

“No, it wasn’t Lee Evans, actually,” said Martin, correcting himself. “No, it definitely wasn’t Lee Evans because, the time we did Lee Evans, he gave us a lift there, so,” he laughed, “It was probably us!”

Even with vivid, ‘unforgettable’ stories, people do forget and, over time, memories differ.

I can barely – and often don’t – remember what I did yesterday.

In this story, it is only a final detail that is uncertain. The agreed near-unbelievable story itself is true. But with Malcolm Hardee, even more than most, the rule-of-thumb should always be: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

It is what Malcolm would have wanted.

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What connects Richard Gere, George Clooney and John Travolta?

There’s a lot of news here in Milan – if only I can remember it

I have a notoriously bad memory.

Last night, I watched some slides taken by a friend whom I met on a trip to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1989. We also went to Nepal and Tibet together in 1990. I could not remember most of the incidents on the slides.

Apparently, in 1990, we drove by coach from Kathmandu to the Friendship Bridge which marks the border between Nepal and Tibet. For surreal Chinese bureaucratic reasons, we then had to walk unaccompanied over the border for around six or seven miles to link up with our Chinese guides and their coach. I remember none of this. I thought we must have switched coaches at the border.

I could not remember about 75% of the people we travelled with on those trips either – including some bloke I shared a room with for about two weeks

Then there was the photo of the mind-reading parrot in Kathmandu.

I remember nothing of this creature but there it was, captured on film.

Nope. No memory at all.

My eternally-un-named friend has suggested that maybe my memory was affected by the accident I had in 1991 when I hit the back of my head. I have blogged before about how, since then, I am unable to read printed books although, oddly, I can write them on a computer screen.

Maybe that is why.

But my memory has always been bad. I tend to remember trivia but, then, I’m interested in trivia.

The title of the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera translates as The Evening Courier but it is the morning newspaper here. That’s Italy for you.

Yesterday, Corriere Della Sera carried a photo of Richard Gere kissing a woman. Today it has a photo of George Clooney kissing a woman and the caption says they have a special look in their eyes.

There is also a news report about a tunnel which has taken twenty years and 120 million Euros to build but now the authorities are unable to finish it because they can’t afford the tarmac.

And there is a report about the entertaining politician Silvio Berlusconi’s girlfriend who was unable to get to the toilet yesterday because she was surrounded by photographers. It is quite a lengthy report.

Meanwhile, in an interview today in the weekly Italian gossip magazine Oggi (Oggi, of course, means “today” not “weekly”), John Travolta admits the reason he is in “great shape” is due to yoghurt and Scientology.

Now that I might remember.

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A small incident, soon forgotten… but it scarred another person for life.

I think the American comic Lewis Schaffer may have taken leave of his senses.

Last night he said to me:

“You should do something with your blog. People have book tours. You should have a blog tour. Go round the country telling stories from your blog.”

Lewis grabbed my attention by saying this – not because it was a good idea but because I was taken aback by the fact he was not talking about himself.

“Lewis,” I told him in the patient tone I reserve only for small children, drunks and people from the Colonies, “I am not in any way a performer; I have no charisma; no-one has ever heard of me in Leamington Spa (my eternal benchmark for middle England); and I have a shit memory.”

I have mentioned in these blogs before – but I cannot remember when – that I may be the ideal comedy audience because I can sit through a superb show with great gags rolling on like overlapping waves for an hour and yet, two minutes after leaving the venue, I cannot remember any of the jokes at all.

I once mentioned to someone with whom I have been friends for 36 years that, although I had worked briefly and peripherally with Sylvester McCoy on the TV series Tiswas, I had never actually seen him perform on stage.

“Yes you have,” my long-term friend told me. “You and I saw him on stage in Accidental Death of an Anarchist!”

“We did?” I asked, astonished. “I can’t remember ever going to a theatre with you.”

She then reeled off about five occasions when we had been to the theatre together. And another occasion when we had both gone to see Sylvester McCoy perform on stage. (Obviously, at the time of writing this blog, I cannot remember what that second play was.)

Fortunately, my friend knew me well enough not to be insulted.

Ironically, people who do not know me as well as she does think I have a very good memory because I always remember their birthdays. But this is because I write everything which seems likely to be important down in a diary which I always carry around with me. I once lost it for two days and virtually needed psychological counselling.

Sometimes, when transferring birthday dates into a new diary, I can barely remember who some of the people are but, if I were ever to meet them again, I would be able to impressively know when their birthdays are.

It is a minor compulsion and I control it. It does not control me.

This same friend (the one with whom I apparently saw Sylvester McCoy in Accidental Death of an Anarchist) told me, knowing I never wanted to live beyond my 18th birthday:

“The irony is you are liable to live into your nineties because you don’t worry very much and people who don’t get worried are supposed to live longer… You worry-away at things but not about things – and you tend to look forward not back.”

Readers of this blog may disagree.

But she knows me quite well… although one reason I do not look back too much is that I have mostly forgotten what happened.

Life just stretches apparently endlessly onwards but occasionally people remind me of something I did or saw and I think: “Ooh. Perhaps I have had a more interesting life than I thought I had.”

I am quite a good editor and perhaps I edit my memory too tightly. Perhaps I too quickly discard into the forgotten recesses of my mind’s filing cabinet seemingly irrelevant things which I think will be of no practical use to me in the future and I only keep in my immediate frontal memory things which I think may have some relevant cross-referencing value later on.

My blog a couple of days ago was about a road accident in Greenwich.

In it, I wrote:

“By the weekend, I will have forgotten any of this ever happened. It is not relevant to my life”

This was read by the retired senior fire officer whom I mentioned in yesterday’s blog,

After he read it, the retired senior fire officer sent me an e-mail in which he said:

“It is strange how apparently irrelevant events can become relevant later. Doing my old job consisted of lots of events that weren’t really relevant to my own life, only to others…  or so I thought.

“But I received a phone call out of the blue last year from a young lady. She asked me if I remembered a road accident on an obscure B road about 20 years previously.

“Until her call, all I had remembered about that accident was that the passenger in the other car had been reading a novel called Dead On Arrival. The book was open, in the footwell, as we removed her body.

“Talking to the lady on the phone brought the accident back to me and I was able to remember in detail the two-car double-fatal event which also left three badly injured. This included the recovery of two seriously injured little girls trapped in an upside-down car pinned into a ditch full of water. I gave one of the little girls a teddy bear which I carried around – to comfort her and to stop her unnerving screaming.

“She was the girl talking on the phone and she had been looking for me since she was able. Despite her brain damage and crippled body she had survived, grown up, married and had children. She wanted to say “thanks” and to tell me how she had got on… about her home, her children and husband.

“Because of that one phone call, she is now no longer an irrelevant part of my past and I think all the perceived irrelevant things we see, do or sometimes think have some sort of impact, even if its just…..  ‘just’….. on our character.”

The retired senior fire officer is, of course, right. And the same incident one person forgets can be the very incident that scars – literally or figuratively – another person for life.

My mother, a very sensitive woman, was Christened with the name Agnes but was never called that, even by her parents – she was always called Nan.

When she was a young girl at school, her English teacher told her, “Oh, Agnes. You have no soul for poetry.”

As a result, after that, she took no interest in reading books.

A few seconds after that schoolteacher had said the words, I am sure he would have forgotten that he had ever said them.

But they scarred her for life.

She was born with only one hand. She had no left hand. As a child, she was brought up to always hide her hand in public.

In her late twenties, when she became engaged to my father, a member of his family said to her:

“I wish Harry could marry a whole woman.”

Obviously, she never forgot. She had been brought up to be ashamed of her missing hand. She never told my father about his relative’s comment. She lived until she was 86.

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How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?

Yesterday, a 15 year-old girl asked me:

“How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?”

I told her: “The only way to become a writer is to write. It sounds silly, but it’s like juggling. The more you do it, the better you get.”

On the other hand, I can’t juggle, so what do I know about it?

Always beware of people who use similes about things they don’t know even the first thing about.

And who end sentences with prepositions.

I also told the 15 year old girl she had asked the wrong question.

“You don’t want to know what subjects to write about,” I told her. “You want to know who will buy and/or read the stuff you write. You don’t want to look at anything from the perspective of you writing something; you want to look from the perspective of someone reading what you write.”

That’s the only decent piece of advice I have about writing.

Never think of yourself as a writer.

The worst thing anyone can ever do is think of themself as ‘a writer’. If you do that, your mindset will be wrong. You will think, “How would a ‘real’ writer say this?” and you will copy the way you think a ‘real’ writer should write and it will be crap because you will descend into cliché.

Plenty of people write in the same way, but who wants to write like the lowest common denominator Fleet Street hack?

A famous actress with a great life story once talked to me about writing her autobiography. The most important thing, she said, was that she wanted to write it herself and for the book to be her own thoughts in her own voice. Eventually, the publisher persuaded her to have an experienced Fleet Street journalist ‘help’ her with the autobiography.

I picked up the published book in Tesco one day and looked at the first page. It read like any book serialisation in any tabloid Sunday newspaper. It was written in cliché Fleet Street sentences. It probably sold well because she was a famous actress, but not because it was well-written and not because she herself had written it.

In 2003, Random House commissioned unknown Scots comedienne Janey Godley to write her autobiography. She had gone into a meeting with an editor at their imprint Ebury Press with little hope of getting a book commissioned – nobody had ever heard of her – but, when the editor heard just a little of her life story, Random House virtually ripped her arms off to sign her up.

I was asked to actually edit the book which was published as Handstands in the Dark (a terrible title – it should have been called Good Godley! – but Ebury insisted). I had a meeting with Ebury after the contract was signed at which it was discussed what editing this book might involve, because Janey had never written anything for publication before.

It might involve doing nothing. It might involve tweaking. It might involve a lot of literary shepherding. It might involve writing the whole thing from scratch if it turned out Janey could not do it herself. They wanted to publish her story; she was staggeringly charismatic to talk to; but no-one knew if she could write for print.

As it turned out, she was a brilliant writer, though I had to give her advice in the first few weeks of the process. Of course, it might have been wrong advice – what do I know? – but I don’t think it was.

She used to send me stuff she had written almost every night. Because she was writing an autobiography, at first she delivered lots of facts.

This happened, that happened, then this happened, then…

This can wear the reader down and also it does not actually let the reader share the experience of what happened, which is the whole point of writing the thing. You can get bogged down in facts with no humanity. Writing is not about facts; it’s about emotions and thoughts. The facts, however interesting, are only the skeleton for the meat. People are interested in people, not facts.

I told Janey to find key incidents which epitomised the period or the emotions of what was happening to her at the time and then to describe those key incidents and emotions as vividly as she could.

“Write more about less,” I told her.

One way to make the incidents more vivid was to try to find any of her five senses that were key to the moment. A ‘key’ moment is literally that. It opens up a doorway to something. If she remembered an incident, what was the first thing she remembered inside herself? Which of her five senses was most vivid? Use that key sense of the moment and it opens up a whole emotional experience which readers can share.

When Marcel Proust wrote his autobiographical Remembrance of Things Past (which, of course, I have never read) he ended up writing seven volumes after drinking one spoonful of tea in which he had soaked a piece of madeleine cake. The taste triggered involuntary memories of his entire childhood – all the tiny details came flooding back to him.

He wrote: “The taste was of a little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea….Immediately the old grey house on the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and the entire town, with its people and houses, gardens, church, and surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being from my cup of tea.” Just seeing the madeleine had not brought back these memories. He needed to taste and smell it.

Describing what is seen or heard is obvious. Perhaps smell and taste come next. But touch is important too. If you describe the rough or smooth texture of something, the object becomes more alive.

You can write that you sat on a sofa. Or you can write that, as you sat on the cream sofa with its three dark brown coffee stains, your fingers ran over the rough-textured woollen blanket which Fred had half-thrown over its back that drunken night.

Of course, you don’t want too much of this – it could end up as bad as having endless adjectives in front of the noun. Who wants to read too many sentences about a noisy, black, frightened, one-eyed Shetland pony?

I told Janey that, if she remembered one key sensory detail of any incident, include it. So, in one sentence, she wrote:

“Three plain clothes detectives were standing around, their cold breath drifting up and turning white and blue in the flashing lights of the ambulance.”

I think that description is all-the-more vivid because Janey chooses to write “white and blue” instead of “blue and white”, but that would take a whole extra thousand words to discuss!

In another sentence, she writes:

“I ran up the stairway with one policeman behind me, my bloodied shoes sticking to the wooden stairs as I went.”

It is, of course, the fact that the bloodied soles of her shoes stick slightly on the wooden stairs which makes it so vivid.

Handstands in the Dark is not a book you forget easily. The rather stunned publisher at Ebury Press said details stayed with him vividly for days after reading it. And Janey wrote every word in it. I very carefully did not suggest words or phrases. Which can be a problem with publishers.

My experience is that people who can write do so. People who want to write but can’t write become publishers and then try to write through other people, often messing up writers’ text and downgrading it to cliché mulch. This, it should be said, did not happen with Janey’s book which Ebury were not allowed to see until the manuscript was completed and which went on to be both a Top Ten hardback and Top Ten paperback bestseller.

An extension of the truism that “those who can write do and those who can’t write become publishers” is that those who can’t write start courses teaching people how to write. That is not always true, but it often is,

The only way to learn how to write, as I told the 15 year old girl yesterday, is to write and write and write.

But don’t sit down with a black sheet of paper or computer screen and think you are creating the words that come out of you. Instead, turn it round 180 degrees and, as you write, think you are seeing the words appear for the first time and you are the reader not the writer. Put yourself in the position of someone who does not know what is coming next.

The first sentence should intrigue the reader into wanting to know what the next sentence is going to be. You want to hook the reader. So, imagining yourself as the reader, you know what has to be written to explain more about what is being said – what is needed to understand more about the argument or about the plot. But you don’t want to give the readers 100% of the information. You want to ‘hook’ or intrigue them into constantly wanting to know more.

Keep ‘em wanting more.

My template was George Orwell, who I think was a great communicator though a shit novelist. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful book. But the human beings in it – particularly the heroine – are badly drawn. He was a journalist and writer of ideas – his non-fiction like Homage to Catalonia is masterful. Animal Farm, which is really a non-fiction book masquerading as a fictional story, is amazing. But he was not a good novelist.

Me?

I think layout is almost as important as what you write. Make sure it looks easy-to-read on the page. Vary the lengths and look of the paragraphs. Mix prose and quotes. Don’t have big impenetrable-looking chunks of text. Make it look easy to read and it will be easier to read.

My own big problem is I need deadlines to write anything. So I will just go off out to Tesco now.

Do what I say, not what I do.

Always easier to say to a 15 year-old.

And remember William Goldman’s oft-quoted but oft-misunderstood recurring warning in his brilliantly incisive Adventures in the Screen Trade - the best book I know about the creative process and full of great Hollywood anecdotes:

Nobody knows anything.

Maybe it is a pity it has taken me 1,766 words to mention that.

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For the third and last time – pity the poor comedian with a bad memory or an impish audience member

I am the ideal comedy audience because I have a shit memory.

I can watch a stand-up performance and love it and adore every gut-wrenchingly funny punchline and walk out at the end of the gig and ten minutes later… I cannot remember any of the jokes.

In that sense, I am the stand-up comic’s dream: that he/she could perform the same gags every day to the same Alzheimer’s audience and they wouldn’t realise it.

Alas for the poor comedian, audiences do remember if you have told them a gag, especially if you just told them that same gag ten minutes ago.

The last couple of days, I have blogged about stand-up comedians who have – either intentionally or unintentionally – repeated all of part of their routines within the same gig to increasingly bemused audiences.

After reading the blogs, Mark Hurst aka Mark Miwurdz contacted me on Facebook:

“Yikes! I did that at the Edinburgh Fringe once, must have been festival fatigue. Finished a routine and began it agin, as if on a loop. I pretended it was deliberate but I don’t think anyone believed me.”

There is also a problem, of course, if comics don’t watch the comedians who precede them at a club gig. Mark Hurst says:

“I saw two comics very recently, back to back, who both did routines on knife crime and using a spoon instead. The audience suddenly went quiet on the second one, much to his confusion.”

“Ah the topical comic’s nightmare,” Brian Mulligan of Skint Video told me yesterday: “We once had a joke about Frank Bough caught sniffing coke to which the punchline was Next we’ll find out Lord Denning is a rent boy! And Felix, who was on before us, had done the same gag.”

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned the occasion recalled by Ronnie Golden and Michael Redmond in which Lee Cornes intentionally re-told his jokes to confuse an audience at the Comedy Store in London. And Steve Bennett of the Chortle comedy website told me of an occasion which was the reverse of this:

“There’s a related story,” he told me yesterday, “that a comedian – I think it was Phill Jupitus – was once heckled by a voice from the front row which quietly told him: You’ve already said that… He hadn’t, but he had performed at four other gigs that night and couldn’t be sure what he’d done, so he was thrown completely.”

Comedians trying to confuse audiences… audience members trying to confuse comedians.

Pity the poor comedian.

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