Category Archives: Books

Dan Harary (Part 3): The UFOs, the aliens… and then… After They Came…

In my last two blogs, American publicist Dan Harary talked about his life, his PR company, his flirting with the famous and about sex, his rock drummer background and three of his four new books. That was in the last two encounters I had with him. This is, as it were, a close encounter of the third kind…


JOHN: So, your fourth new book… After They Came – out next Spring – aliens… Surely a movie?

DAN: Absolutely! It’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

JOHN: Aliens?

DAN: In 2017, my dad passed away. He was my hero. He worked for the US Government for about 50 years. He invented missiles and radars and drones and satellite stuff. He always said he helped the US win the Cold War.

I’ve been studying UFO research for about 25 years. I absolutely believe there are others out there and they know all about us and the major governments in the world know all about them.

After my dad passed, I asked my mother: “Do you think dad knew about aliens and UFOs?”

My mother told me: “When he first got the job at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, in the very earliest days, they took him into the vaults and they showed him something and he came home and he was white.”

My mother asked him: “What’s wrong?” and he goes: “I saw something remarkable. I can’t tell you what it is.”

But my mother said he was scared. He was frightened and he never spoke about it to anyone ever.

There’s no way to know what he saw. But I’m pretty sure my dad knew.

Everything he did flew. My dad invented things for the US Government that flew; they all spied on Russia, North Korea, North Vietnam I know, Cuba… That’s what he did for 50 years.

So my dad passed. I went to a diner by myself to mourn my dad and thought: Right, I love UFOs, my dad passed away. What if my dad knew about UFOs?

So I’m at the diner waiting for my sandwich and on the paper napkin on the table I started writing ideas down… and I came up with ATC.

I’m thinking like: ATC?… After They Came?… ATC. After They Came. Yeah! I like that! That was the birth of it.

The storyline is a man turns 60 years old. He hates his life. He hates his job. His children don’t speak to him anymore. He’s depressed. He commits suicide on his 60th birthday.

He swims out to sea and drowns because he doesn’t wanna live anymore.

As he’s drowning, an enormous UFO comes out of the ocean and then, right above him, beams him up into the ship and revives him. There’s two benevolent aliens on board who we learn, through reading the book, have history with this guy’s dead father.

They save the guy’s life and they present him to the world at the Dodgers’ Stadium in Los Angeles.

The Dodgers’ Stadium – shaping up for a UFO encounter

The UFO goes to the Dodgers’ Stadium; they beam themselves down. All the media, the cops, sirens, the ambulances are there. It’s a tribute – a cousin – to The Day The Earth Stood Still.

They basically say: People of Earth, we’re here to help you. We wanna help solve your problems. We’re benevolent. We saved this man. If you have ideas on how we can help mankind, he’s the conduit to us. We have a relationship with this guy.

So they leave; he remains behind.

Now, he just tried to kill himself…

He’s taken to the President of the United States who, in my book, is based on Oprah Winfrey. You remember a few years ago, they said Oprah was going to run for President? In my book, she’s Tameka Winfield, an African American.

She says: “Who are you? How do you know aliens? How did this happen?”

He says: “I have no idea. I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t know.”

But she sets him up with an office at the UN.

The aliens come once every month to meet with him and they say: “How can we help mankind?”

Every month.

And he’s like: Climate change… Guns… Mental illness… Disease… Water shortages… Famine… Over-population.

Every month he presents a problem and the aliens, with their technology, help to solve them.

That’s the basic premise. I don’t want to give away what happens.

JOHN: That’s a film.

DAN: It’s Close Encounters meets It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Day The Earth Stood Still and the book is coming out next March…

Dan Harary – After They Came

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Dan Harary (Part 2): Seinfeld, sex and party night at the Playboy Mansion…

In yesterday’s blog, I chatted to US publicity guru Dan Harary, who is publishing four books between now and next Spring.

Last month saw the publication of Flirting With Fame: : A Hollywood Publicist Recalls 50 Years of Celebrity Close Encounters

…Dan with Steven Spielberg, Amber Smith, Ann-Margret, Dr Ruth and Jack Black…

The chat continues here…


“I was 24, no car, no money, no proper job, no connections…”

JOHN: You were allegedly Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘very first fan’ in 1981…

DAN: That is absolutely true. In 1981, I had been in LA for about six months. I was 24, no car, no money, no proper job, no connections. I was a gofer for a video company, which meant I had to run for sandwiches and coffee, clean people’s offices and my biggest job was to get my bosses’ cars washed: Jaguars, Mercedes, BMWs… They were all millionaires; I was penniless.

One day I went to the car wash. There were only two people there: me and Jerry Seinfeld. I had seen him the year before, in 1980, in Manhattan and he had been so remarkably funny. 

So, at the car wash, I turn and say: “Jerry Seinfeld?”

“Yeah?”

“My name is Dan. I’m your biggest fan.”

He goes: “Gee. I didn’t know I had any fans.”

We shook hands and I said: “I saw you in New York last year. What are you doing now?”

“Well, tonight I am gonna make my debut on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”

And that night…

JOHN: …he became a star.

DAN: …he became a star. Yeah. But the funny part of that story, really, is the second half… 

I said: “You and I are about the same age; we both came here from the East Coast; but I don’t have any friends here. Could you and I be friends?”

And he looked at me like this… (ODDLY)… and he says: “Weeell, I don’t give out my phone number, but here’s my business manager’s card”… He gave me the card. Nothing happened…

So, cut to 12 years later… 1993.

Jerry Seinfeld and Dan Harary in 1993…

I’m at a TV Convention in San Francisco. Seinfeld, the TV show, was now very, very popular. Sony Pictures were selling Seinfeld into syndication. 

I’m walking through this TV Convention. Jerry’s there. 

I went up to him and said: “Jerry…”

“Yes?”

“My name is Dan.”

We shook hands again.

I said: “I met you in 1981 at the Sunset Car Wash. It was the day you made your debut on The Tonight Show.

He looked at me and said: “I remember you. You wanted to be my friend.”

He pulls his hand out from my hand. He turns and he walks away.

As we’d first met in West Hollywood, he probably thought I was gay. Who knows.

“…women I’ve loved, lost or chased…”

JOHN: But you’re not gay. Your second book Carrots: A Sex Odyssey is coming out this September and it is…

DAN: …the history of women I’ve loved, lost or chased or never had the courage to love at all and there’s quite a few of them.

JOHN: In the blurb, it mentions you had a 20-year long sex addiction “later in life”. What took you so long?

DAN: I was very shy when I was young, even though I had the long hair and I played the drums and I worked with Bruce Springsteen and KISS and Fleetwood Mac – I did lighting and stage work at The Sunshine Inn. I was a straight-A student in school but, with women, with girls, I was very very shy. 

I was with my wife from the age of 25 to 36. We had two kids. When I got divorced at 36…  I was no longer shy…

From 36 to 56 I became a sex addict. I went wild for quite a while but now I’m glad that period of my life is behind me. 

JOHN: You worked at the Playboy Channel for three years and Playboy Channel events were held in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion West.

Hugh Hefner and Dan Harary at the Playboy Mansion in 1984

DAN: Most of the times I was there was for events during the day. I think I met Hefner three times; he was very nice. I did go to a few parties there at night. I wasn’t there when people were making love in the pool. I didn’t see naked people, but I saw some interesting things at night. 

The Halloween parties that he had! Celebrities were there and gorgeous 18/19 year-old girls with almost no clothes on. At one of those parties, I had my drink and I’m like the grandfather next to these young girls. They’re like my daughter’s age. 

I’m looking around thinking: For a straight man, this is heaven! There’s a table of shrimp and lobster and steak. And on other table is free alcohol: every possible drink. Garry Shandling and Matt Dillon are there I remember… James Caan. And then the girls! Every girl was drop-dead gorgeous and some were there with their mothers! 

I met this one girl of 19 and her mom was like 40 and they were both equally beautiful.

Dan and Playboy Playmate Kym Malin, 1985

I was single at that time but I was so overwhelmed that, after two hours, I actually said to myself: I have to leave! 

It was too much.

It was just too much.

JOHN: Surely you owed it to yourself to stay?

DAN: I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. First of all, these girls wanted millionaire, movie star boyfriends. I’m not a millionaire and I’m not a movie star.

A lot of women I’ve met in my life want to use me, OK. Can you help me do my PR? I’ve had actress women, models use me. I like pretty girls and they like to torture me! But that one night at the Halloween party I actually had to leave. It was like being a kid in a candy store but you have diabetes.

JOHN: You must have unfulfilled ambitions? You were a drummer in lots of bands…

DAN: When I was a Senior in high school, a friend of mine who was friends with Bruce Springsteen told me: “Dan, Bruce is looking for a new drummer. Why don’t you consider trying out for him?”

Now I did not like his music at that time. I was into The Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Beatles, The Stones. 

Years later, I came to love quite a few of his songs. Independence Day is one of my favourite songs. But, at the time, he wasn’t famous and I had no connection with his music. So I told my friend: “It’s not for me.”

Had I auditioned, you never know… I had a beautiful drum set, I was a very good drummer, I had met Bruce the year before. He would have known who I was. But, you know, I didn’t even drive? I was 16. Bruce was seven years older than me. If we had gone to a bar, I wouldn’t have been able to play. I was 16. Under-age.

That’s the closest I ever got to becoming a famous drummer.

New York’s Last Rock ‘n’ Roll Mecca…

JOHN: Your third book is Inside The Cutting Room: A Backstage Look at New York’s Last Rock ‘n’ Roll Mecca. It’s published in Spring next year and it’s about the music business…

DAN: The backstory is my best friend from childhood – Steve Walter.  We met in 1968. He and I grew up together. We were in bands together. We worked at The Sunshine Inn together. When I was 24, I went to LA; he went to Manhattan.

He owns The Cutting Room club. My lifelong best friend.

He opened The Cutting Room 25 years ago. A lot of very very famous musicians, rock bands have played there over the years.

JOHN: Lady Gaga was discovered there?

DAN: Absolutely correct. March 2006.

In March 2006, there was The Songwriters of New York Talent Showcase and 19-year old Stefani Germanotta played on my friend’s stage along with about a dozen other young performers.

There was a woman in the audience named Wendy Starland who, when she saw Stefani perform, called a record producer friend and said: “I just discovered the next Big Thing.”

Wendy took Stefani to meet this guy who heard her stuff, said, “You’re the new John Lennon. You’re a good songwriter,” signed her up and, the next time she played The Cutting Room that Fall, they introduced her as Lady Gaga.

JOHN: On your personal website, you describe yourself as “an author, entertainment industry publicist, drummer and former stand-up comic”. The domain name is danhararyauthor.com – danhararyAUTHOR not danhararyPR or just danharary… I know you have your business site www.asburypr.com but danhararyAUTHOR.com implies that writing is personally more important than other things?

“…the new Woody Allen. I was gonna write sitcoms…”

DAN: In Eighth Grade, I was writing short stories and my English teacher loved them; she told me I was a talented writer. I came to LA to be a comedy writer for television. I wanted to be the new Woody Allen. I was gonna write sitcoms. I came close with Seinfeld in 1992. I came close but didn’t sell my script. I came close three times; it didn’t happen. Along the way, I fell in love, got married, had kids. 

I’m a good writer. A lot of publicity, as you know, is writing. So my sitcom comedy writing ambitions veered off to PR. And that’s how I made a living for 40 years. It’s just how it happened. I told my mother: “At the age of 66, I’ve now finally fulfilled my dream of being an author.”

JOHN: So now we get to your fourth book… the one about the UFOs…

DAN: Yes…

(… CONTINUED HERE …)

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Dan Harary (Part 1): Flirting with Fame; insulting Schwarzenegger and Streep…

Dan Harary talked to me from Los Angeles at the weekend…

Dan Harary calls himself “an author, entertainment industry publicist, drummer and former stand-up comic”. He started his own company Asbury PR of Beverly Hills in 1996. Now, 26 years successful years later, he is suddenly publishing four – yes four – books. The first was published last month: Flirting With Fame: : A Hollywood Publicist Recalls 50 Years of Celebrity Close Encounters.

Part of the PR pitch for it is:

“Dan quite often found himself in rather bizarre circumstances while interacting with famous people – like having a staring contest with Barbra Streisand, twice; or smoking a joint in silence with Jill Clayburgh in Central Park; or talking with Billy Crystal about Chinese food at Sid Caesar’s funeral; or introducing his mother to Mel Brooks and finding out they both went to the same high school. Dan’s countless ‘close encounters of the celebrity kind’ are sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and quite often cringe-inducing.”

We chatted at the weekend…


Flirting and skirting but never hurting…

JOHN: FOUR books being published between now and next Spring? Why now?

DAN: Flirting With Fame was from Covid. Last Spring, 2021, I looked at the calendar and I was going to turn 65 and realised the very first celebrity I ever met was when I was 15 years old – Richie Havens, who was a famous singer from Woodstock.

During Covid, I was bored and had nothing to do. Wow! It’s been 50 years since I’ve been meeting and working with celebrities! So I took a piece of paper and just wrote down all the hundreds of celebrities I’ve met or worked with and there were so many of them that I thought: I should just write a book.

When I was in high school, I had really long hair, I played the drums and ran lights and stage crew for a little concert hall in Asbury Park – The Sunshine Inn.

Bruce Springsteen played there quite often; he was considered like the house band. Before it was called the E Street Band, he had a band called Steel Mill, one called Doctor Zoom and The Sonic Boom and then he had the Bruce Springsteen Band.

JOHN: You’ve known everybody.

DAN: It’s not that I know them, John. It’s like in the title of my book – Flirting – It’s like I skimmed with hundreds of very very very famous people. Most of my clients are behind-the-scenes people in the entertainment world. I’m FLIRTING with fame. I’m not famous. Only a few of my clients – like Jay Leno – were famous. But, over the course of time, I’ve been in situations surrounded by a lot of famous people.

JOHN: According to your own publicity for the book, you pissed-off some…

DAN: Arnold Schwarzenegger, sure. I was at an event in Beverly Hills in 1996. He wasn’t the Governor of California yet, but he was a big star. The event was for Milton Berle. You remember Milton Berle?

JOHN: Of course. A comedy legend.

Dan with Sid Caesar – semi-retired but still active in 1987…

DAN: I worked with Milton a few times. I represented Sid Caesar for a couple of years.

Anyway, I was at an event in Beverly Hills for Milton Berle. I knew Arnold Schwarzenegger would be there and my 8-year-old son was a huge fan of The Terminator movies. So I took a photo of Arnold as The Terminator and a white marking pen.

During a break in the festivities, Arnold is at a table with two giant bodyguards and I just tapped him on the shoulder: “Hello. My name is Dan. My son is 8 years old. He loves The Terminator. Would you be kind enough to give a quick autograph?” I have the photo and the pen in my hand.

He looks at me and he goes (CONTORTS FACE) “GHHHRRRRRRR!!!!!”

I say: “Arnold, please. He’s 8 years old.”

“GHHHRRRRRRR!!!!!”

I swear to God. Steam virtually shooting out of his bright red… like he wanted me to burn in a fire…

“GHHHRRRRRRR!!!!!”

Arnold Schwarzenegger: GHHHRRRRRRR!!!!!

He never said a word to me. 

So now I’m like shaking, right?

His bodyguards are looking at me.

I’m like: Come on, Arnold, you can do it! 

It’ll take five seconds.

Come on, man. Please! Please do it!

“GHHHRRRRRRR!!!!!”

Really, it was a stand-off. And, eventually, he realised I was not going to leave without it… So, after quite a while, he finally grabbed the pen and did it and wrote: TO JORDAN – BEST WISHES.

My son is 34 years old now and he has it framed on his wall in his house in Alaska.

JOHN: The thing that most shocks me is that Arnold Schwarzenegger needed two bodyguards.

DAN: They had little earpieces with little curly wire that came out.

JOHN: Meeting ‘stars’ can be strange…

DAN: I was at a photo shoot with Kevin Costner in 1990… Kevin wasn’t a huge, huge star then, so he was very approachable. He couldn’t have been nicer. This was to promote an Earth Day TV special on ABC. 

A lot of executives from Warner Bros and ABC were there and everyone was saying: “She’s coming! She’s coming!’

I didn’t know who. They didn’t tell me.

“It’s ten minutes till she’ll be here… She’s coming!… Ten minutes!… Five minutes!”

“Who’s coming?” I asked.

They said: “Meryl Streep!”

“Meryl Streep?” I said. “Meryl Streep is coming?”

Carla holding her Oscar for Sophie’s Choice…

She was very famous, of course, and, at the time, was just a few years out from her Sophie’s Choice Oscar. This is MERYL STREEP, you know?

So Meryl Streep’s coming! Oh my God! Oh my God!

I wasn’t a particular fan of hers. I don’t think she’s particularly… I was never a fan of hers ever, but everyone was scurrying around: “Meryl’s coming! Meryl’s coming!”

So I got caught up in it.

The doors open. It’s bright sunshine outside. She enters. She’s all in white. She’s like an angel from Heaven. It’s like Mother Mary has descended and we’re like the peasants in Guatemala or wherever. She comes in and there’s like 20 people in a line. ABC people. Warner Bros people. I’m at the very end of the line. Next to me is a friend of mine named Carla from Warner Bros.

So Meryl goes along the line like the Queen of England. 

“Miss Streep, it’s such an honour”… “Miss Streep, it’s such an honour…”

I’m caught up in it.

It’s Meryl Streep! It’s Meryl Streep!

She gets to me and I’m at the very end of this long line and, by the time she got to me,  I was so nervous I shook her hand and said: “Hello Carla, so nice to meet you…”

She looked at me like the RCA Victor dog, with her head on one side, thinking: “…What was…? Did he just…?

I didn’t really know what was happening. She walked away and then my friend Carla told me: “Dan, you just called Meryl Streep ‘Carla’” and I said “I did?? Really??”

JOHN: I’m surprised you would be overawed by a star: you did stand-up comedy.

Dan stands-up on stage at Hollywood’s Improv

DAN: I did comedy much later – here in LA – 1998-2001. I only ever made $6 from it in total. Jerry Seinfeld made $6 billion. I made $6. I have it framed. I did it because, when I was in Sixth Grade, I had a teacher who used to make students go to the front of the classroom and give an oral report. She tortured us: 

“Stand up straight!… You’re slouching!… You’re mumbling!… Speak louder!… Speak softer!… Don’t look at your nose!”… All she did was criticise. So I had a fear of public speaking from the age of 12.

And, for a publicist, it’s really not good to have a fear of public speaking.

So I took a class at the Improv in West Hollywood with one of the owners and the graduation of the class was to do 8 minutes on stage at The Improv. Next to my son being born, it was the most nervous I ever was in my life. I almost threw up before I went on stage. My mother was there; all my friends were there. 250 people. I was shaking; nervous; my heart was pounding; I was a nervous wreck. But I went out and did my thing and I survived.

I’m not a natural stage performer. I’m a drummer. I was in bands all my life. Playing in a band? That’s easy. No sweat. But to stand up on stage with a microphone and you’re saying your jokes?… It’s very, very scary.

JOHN: I suppose the drummer is at the back and not the centre of attention.

Dan not quite hiding behind his youthful hair and cymbals…

DAN: I suppose that’s right. I had really long hair and you have cymbals in front of you. When I played, my hair used to fly everywhere. My parents saw me play once and someone said to my mother: “That drummer, she’s really good for a girl…”

JOHN: But you weren’t interested in performing comedy as such? Even though you knew Sid Caesar and Milton Berle…

DAN: I represented Sid Caesar for two years, 1987-1989. He paid a monthly retainer to our PR firm to keep his name in the press. He was sort-of semi-retired but still active; he was in good health still; he did guest starring roles on TV. I got him many interviews: at the time he was re-releasing Your Show of Shows on VHS tapes for the first time.

Also he, Milton Berle and Danny Thomas did a live tour of the US in 1988 and I was the publicist – The Living Legends of Comedy Tour

JOHN: That was when you got to know Milton Berle as well?

DAN: Around the same time. I spent a day with him at a TV station in Hollywood. He had written a book called BS: I Love Youan autobiography – and he was there to promote it.

So I’m at the TV station and there’s a knock on the backstage door and this little old hunched, shaking Jewish man with a hat and a coat and a cane came in.

“Mr Berle?” I said.

“Yes.”

“My name is Dan. I’m here to help you out.”

“OK. Very good.”

I took him to his dressing room. He closes the door very quietly.

Dan with switched-on larger-than-life Milton.

I wait about 10-15 minutes and then the door bursts open. He’s standing perfectly straight. Different clothes. Big cigar… “Hi kid! Here I am! Where do you want me?”

I almost asked him: “What did ya do with Milton Berle?”

The man who went in and the man who came out of the dressing room – Two completely different men. 

JOHN: It wasn’t a joke? He had just suddenly ‘switched-on’ Milton Berle?

DAN: Yeah. He BECAME Milton Berle in that 10-15 minutes in the dressing room.

I led him out onto the stage and everyone was so excited. 

But instead of shaking people’s hands and saying “Hello, how are you?” he goes: “Aaah… I don’t like that camera over there! These lights: these can be moved! I don’t like this set! That chair has to be over here! This spotlight has to be…”… and for the next 45 minutes all he did was re-arrange this entire studio that had been created just for him. Everyone was like: What is he doing? But it’s MILTON BERLE: What can you do? All you can do is obey his commands!

JOHN: What happened at the end when he left the set? Did he return to being the old man?

DAN: He did the interview. He was very funny. At the end, he shook hands and was very nice. I walked him back to his limousine and he remained in character. He has the cigar. He’s smiling. He’s not the man who walked in. Now he’s ‘Milton Berle’.

(… CONTINUED HERE… with Jerry Seinfeld, sex addiction and party night at the Playboy Mansion…)

 

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The opening of James Joyce’s novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”…

James Joyce in Zurich, 1916

Today, 16th June, is Bloomsday – the day on which James Joyce‘s Ulysses (1922) is set.

Joyce’s earlier novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) was on the syllabus at my school so I had to read it.

And I loved it. 

So, for no reason other than the fact this is Bloomsday – and to be quirky – and as an act of self-indulgence – and the not minor fact it is apparently out of copyright – here is the opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man… like all Joyce’s work, best read in your mind in an Irish accent…


The first edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, published by B. W. Huebsch in 1916

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

O, the green wothe botheth.

When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

His mother had a nicer smell than his father. She played on the piano the sailor’s hornpipe for him to dance. He danced:

Tralala lala,
Tralala tralaladdy,
Tralala lala,
Tralala lala.

Uncle Charles and Dante clapped. They were older than his father and mother but uncle Charles was older than Dante.

Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. Dante gave him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper.

The Vances lived in number seven. They had a different father and mother. They were Eileen’s father and mother. When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:

—O, Stephen will apologise.

Dante said:

—O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.—

Pull out his eyes,
Apologise,
Apologise,
Pull out his eyes.

Apologise,
Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes,
Apologise.

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes were weak and watery. Rody Kickham was not like that: he would be captain of the third line all the fellows said.

Rody Kickham was a decent fellow but Nasty Roche was a stink. Rody Kickham had greaves in his number and a hamper in the refectory. Nasty Roche had big hands. He called the Friday pudding dog-in-the-blanket. And one day he had asked:

—What is your name?

Stephen had answered: Stephen Dedalus.

Then Nasty Roche had said:

—What kind of a name is that?

And when Stephen had not been able to answer Nasty Roche had asked:

—What is your father?

Stephen had answered:

—A gentleman.

Then Nasty Roche had asked:

—Is he a magistrate?

He crept about from point to point on the fringe of his line, making little runs now and then. But his hands were bluish with cold. He kept his hands in the side pockets of his belted grey suit. That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt. One day a fellow said to Cantwell:

—I’d give you such a belt in a second.

Cantwell had answered:

—Go and fight your match. Give Cecil Thunder a belt. I’d like to see you. He’d give you a toe in the rump for yourself.

That was not a nice expression. His mother had told him not to speak with the rough boys in the college. Nice mother! The first day in the hall of the castle when she had said goodbye she had put up her veil double to her nose to kiss him: and her nose and eyes were red. But he had pretended not to see that she was going to cry. She was a nice mother but she was not so nice when she cried. And his father had given him two five-shilling pieces for pocket money. And his father had told him if he wanted anything to write home to him and, whatever he did, never to peach on a fellow. Then at the door of the castle the rector had shaken hands with his father and mother, his soutane fluttering in the breeze, and the car had driven off with his father and mother on it. They had cried to him from the car, waving their hands:

—Goodbye, Stephen, goodbye!

—Goodbye, Stephen, goodbye!


…and here is Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy from the climax of Ulysses

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British newspapers… a novel tale of devious deals, phone hacking and death

The Lion of Fleet Street is a novel about a British tabloid newspaper reporter – one of the ‘big beasts’ of Fleet Street – the centre of the newspaper business at the turn of the century.

It is written by Patrick Symes. He worked as a freelance reporter for national newspapers, radio and television for forty years, specialising in sport. He also ran a news agency covering news and sport throughout the South of England.

So he knows the inside stories.

He has written (as  Pat Symes) 12 non-fiction books about international sportsmen.

The Lion of Fleet Street is his first novel.


JOHN: You’ve written factual books before. Why a novel now?

PATRICK: I just wanted to see if I could do it. I got to a stage in my career where I was winding down. I had sold the news agency and I did a wee stint as a lecturer in Journalism at Solent University in Southampton which was also coming to an end… and I was having cancer treatment.

I was fit and happy and looking forward to my dotage and then suddenly I discovered I had prostate cancer and then kidney cancer. I’ve had one kidney removed. Then the cancer moved to the lungs, which is where it is now. I’ve got a few nodules there.

JOHN: And, at the moment…?

PATRICK: I’ve had numerous scans. I’m never going to beat it; the tumours are there. But it can be contained and coped-with, I hope. So you just plod on in those sort of circumstances.

I had started a book. I don’t even know why. But I thought: Well, I’ll continue it.

JOHN: Why this plot?

PATRICK: One of the good things about journalism is you meet so many people and come across so many incidents and you store them away. I got this idea based on, I think, the funeral of one of the ‘big beasts’ in Fleet Street. I remember that time – the turn of the century – quite vividly. 

It was a massive turning point in the world of the media and how news was disseminated.

Most of my career, if I was covering a football match, I would have to pick up a phone and dictate the report to a copy typist. That was also the way these ‘big beasts’ in Fleet Street operated too; they had these huge, inflated reputations because theirs was the only conduit for news. 

But suddenly there was a twist and a change and the internet came in, though it wasn’t much good to begin with. I remember thinking: Well this is never going to catch on.

Now, of course, we all live by it every day.

It wasn’t just that, of course. Radio and television were becoming more sophisticated and news was being blasted at us all day long.

JOHN: How were radio and TV becoming more sophisticated in news coverage?

PATRICK: It was more instant. TV had taken over the role of newspapers. There was regional television, regional radio stations with quite sophisticated news production. During the day we would know instantly if the Prime Minister resigned. There was no point newspapers printing that as ‘news’ the next day. 

I think I got the tail end of Fleet Street in its pomp. And there was more money around.

“I think I got the tail end of Fleet Street in its pomp…”

News (in newspapers) has become softer now; it has to be very showbiz orientated.

Many of the ‘big beasts’ took hefty pay-offs and disappeared off to their gardens,; one or two others – like my man in the novel – stayed but didn’t really know how to adapt. Their salaries were quite large. New, younger, management came in with new, fresh ideas and decided that the old type of journalism was largely redundant. 

My man, with redundancy hanging over him, teams up with a phone tapper – although many of the journalists of that time did it themselves. He comes up with a couple of stories that give him a front page lead and he seems to be restoring his reputation, but redundancy is still very much hanging over him.

In desperation, he listens in to a police tape – this was at the time of the Milly Dowler murder

A certain person is going to be arrested, but my protagonist mis-hears it

When his story appears on the front page of his tabloid, the Sunday Argus, it becomes obvious fairly soon afterwards that his story naming the wrong man had been obtained by illegal means. My protagonist’s life is in ruins but he finds another story which involves… There was a hotel in Eastbourne, near Beachy Head which specialised in giving a ‘last night of luxury’ for would-be suicides.

JOHN: This was real?

PATRICK: I don’t know. Beachy Head is a very spooky place. The wind whistles there and there are all these crosses on the edge of the cliff where people have jumped…

JOHN: Really?

PATRICK: Yeah.

JOHN: You went there?

“Beachy Head is a very spooky place. The wind whistles there… where people have jumped…”

PATRICK: Yes. And I was standing there minding my own business, taking in the atmosphere when two people from a church vigilante group came up to me and said: “Can we help you?”

I said: “Why do you think I need help?”

They said: “Number one, you haven’t got a camera. Number two, you’re standing there with your hands in your pockets, deep in thought… If there’s anything we can do to help you…”

JOHN: So you said “I’m a journalist”… and they said “Jump”…?

PATRICK: (LAUGHS) 

JOHN: All first novels are autobiographical, so…

PATRICK: Phone tapping WAS rampant throughout Fleet Street at that time. It was so easy. They were all expected to do it – on the tabloids anyway – and some fairly prominent people in the newspaper industry of that time got away with it. News International are still paying off victims of that nigh on 20 years later.

JOHN: Have you an idea for your next novel?

PATRICK: I went to a school that had part-boarders and there was a very encouraging English teacher there. He got sacked because he was fiddling around with some of the boy boarders.

He became an actor. His name was Roland McLeod.

He never rose to any great prominence, but he was in Worzel Gummidge and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and The Goodies and so on. He tended to play the bank manager or something similar in sitcoms.

He suddenly got the gig of his life when he appeared in Coronation Street – a 6-month or  a year’s contract – and there was a big, big build-up when he was going to propose to Emily Bishop (one of the central characters). A huge build-up. It was in all the papers.

Eileen Derbyshire (as Emily Bishop) and Roland McLeod (as Bernard Morton) in Coronation Street

I didn’t know he was in Coronation Street at first, but you couldn’t avoid it. I mentioned his background to some colleagues in the office and they said: “You ought to put that up to the News of the World. They’d love that!”

Walking behind the newsdesk at the time, by coincidence, was a guy who heard the words Ryde School and he said: “Oh! I went there! I was a boarder and I had ‘difficulties’ with teachers.” So it suddenly became a revenge mission for him and it took me over, really.

I thought: Well, he didn’t do ME any harm…

So it was a real crisis of conscience for a day or two but, in the end, greed overcame my conscience and I rang the News of the World and, of course, they loved it.

I went back to my parents’ house to see if they had any school reports signed by him, which they had. It became a front page lead in the News of the World, I’m afraid to say.

I was well-remunerated, as you can imagine.

The News of the World found him on the day before publication, boarding a plane at Luton Airport. They tapped him on the shoulder and said “Roland McLeod… It’s the News of the World” and he said “I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years”.

It was an astonishing admission when you think about it. 

JOHN: What happened on Coronation Street? Did they pull him as a character?”

PATRICK: I think his role was finished anyway; he had proposed to Emily Bishop and she had said No.

He still got bits and pieces of work afterwards, so I didn’t feel that bad about it. I could justify it by saying to myself that, in many respects, he…

JOHN: …got his comeuppance.

PATRICK: Yes. He did deserve it. 

JOHN: Kiddy fiddling is serious stuff…

PATRICK: Once the News of the World revealed it, he had a speech ready and he said something along the lines of “Homosexuality is a curse. It’s not what I wanted to be.” He tried to justify himself. He had a prepared statement.

JOHN: Over your 40 years in the business, you must have encountered lots of stories which never got published… Did you think of putting them into the novel or future novels?

PATRICK: Little bits and pieces. You knew about people who were on the fiddle. There were stories which suddenly ‘died’; they just didn’t appear.

JOHN: I mean, Jimmy Savile. There would have had to be real, solid, cast-iron evidence to print a story while he was alive.

PATRICK: Yes and he, too, gets a mention in the book. Every newspaper tried to nail him at one stage or another. But they never had solid proof and, if he thought they were getting too close, he would always say: “Well, I’m a national treasure. I’ve raised £50 million through my charity walks and things. Do you want people to know you stopped me doing those?”

… Some of Pat(rick) Symes’ sports books…

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Filed under Books, Journalism, Newspapers

Cult creative performer/painter The Iceman turns children’s book author…

Anthony Irvine – The Iceman – appears occasionally in this blog.

I first auditioned his stage act – melting blocks of ice – in 1987.

In a later incarnation – AIM – he added painting to his creative output. Some of his fine art can be bought from the Saatchi Art website.

For example, a painting of his first ice block – Crazy Larry’s Painting – is currently on offer at a bargain price of £4,280.

And now Anthony has become an author…


JOHN: So you are now an author as well as a performer and painter…

ANTHONY: I have a literary background. When I was a young man, I studied literature at a very ancient institution.

JOHN: Bedlam?

Debbie’s fantastical adventures with Antarctic animals…

ANTHONY: It’s a children’s book called Lockdown Melter.

JOHN: And you presumably wrote it during the Covid block-down…

ANTHONY: Yes. I thought of everybody suffering. It’s a fantasy where a young child – Debbie – is frustrated with the situation and escapes with the aid of Lappy, a polar bear – a small polar bear – who she meets in her bedroom and she goes on this adventure to Antarctica.

To facilitate this adventure, Lappy instructs her to get some ice cubes from the fridge freezer. The ice cubes are put on her head and there’s a magical transformation and she goes on this journey.

The idea is that Antarctica is a pristine, beautiful, relatively-undamaged place that we can all go to; the animals are in harmony and, in the story, the penguin says…

JOHN: The penguin?

ANTHONY: Yes, the penguin… There’s a penguin… As I wrote it, I thought: This is an amazing parallel to my Iceman stage act. It retains an ice theme. In a sense, I melt blocks of ice to achieve purification. Similarly, Debbie is finding something away from this world really – saṃsāra and all that.

JOHN: Saṃsāra ?

Anthony Irvine – his self portrait…

ANTHONY: The Buddhist concept of suffering. Do you chant?

JOHN: Not as far as I know.

ANTHONY: Lockdown Melter was a very simple story but I quite liked it, so I approached a publisher, Olympia, who have an imprint called Bumblebee who have published it.

JOHN: Well, if you write a good children’s story that doesn’t date – it’s a fantasy – it’ll sell forever and internationally.

ANTHONY: You can get it from WH Smith, Foyles, Browns Books, the Book Depository, Waterstones, Amazon, the lot…

JOHN: You should tell Waterstones you will do a signing of the book AND melt a block of ice the same time. That should get people in. Does JK Rowling melt blocks of ice in a bookshop? No. She’s just not trying hard enough.

ANTHONY: Perhaps I should go Banksy-style and sell a book that melts. You know his picture that shredded itself? 

JOHN: Yes. The water from your melted book might be worth a fortune.

ANTHONY: Is it technically possible?

JOHN: I dunno. You are The Iceman. Why become an author?

ANTHONY: I used to tell stories to my young son and I guess I’d always had the thought I might write a children’s story. It is really for young children. The idea is young children could read it themselves or parents could read it to them; it’s more like a picture book. So then I realised I had to get the pictures.

The illustrator is actually Greek: Sofia Stefanis Pons. She did some nice – I think dramatic – illustrations. My pictures were declined as being too ‘rough’. But hers are great.

Debbie meets Lappy for the first time… illustration by Sofia Stefanis Pons…

JOHN: So do you have an idea for a second book?

ANTHONY: Yes. I like the innocence of Lockdown Melter.

When I was a child, I was very unhappy at one point and I built an arch with stiff cushions. I went through the arch and discovered I was happy. So the Lockdown Melter idea is simple but it is like going somewhere and attaining awareness. It’s the same principle.

Debbie goes on a journey. She meets animals who are nice to her and she finds the Antarctic world all very beautiful and something happens at the end which I can’t give away. But I think the idea of the story is the idea that human beings – the human race – need help and in this story it’s the penguin who gives that help.

JOHN: The penguin?

ANTHONY: Yes, the penguin… There’s a penguin… Next time I think Debbie might go to the Sahara.

JOHN: Difficult to work ice blocks into that story.

ANTHONY: An ice block could bring irrigation to the Sahara… I think if this first book is successful I WILL continue with the writing idea.

Anthony Irvine’s educational Thespian Follies, coming soon

I have already written 13 little plays for drama classes in schools. That book is due to be published soon. It’s called Thespian Follies.

It’s an educational resource; I’m going quite mainstream, aren’t I?

Ice blocks were my life and still are my life to some extent but I feel I have to do a bit more. My next ambition is to write a Channel 4 type series: a bit like The Outlaws but based on car rental. When I was in debt at one point, I did a job at Hertz car hire, cleaning cars and taking them out to the Army and so on: that’s a ready-made situation comedy.

JOHN: You could call it Hertz of Darkness.

ANTHONY: I was thinking of calling it Hurts… That’s my next project.

Maybe writing will displace painting in time, but at the moment my main activity is still painting. I’m trying to sell Bill Bailey a painting; I’m playing tennis with his accountant this afternoon.

I sold a painting to Mark Thomas at the Electric Palace in Bridport recently. He was on tour and I hadn’t seen him for about 40 years. He gave me his book and I sold him a painting in which he appears.

JOHN: You are a born entrepreneur. JK Rowling will have to start learning how to melt blocks of ice…

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Filed under Art, Books, Children, eccentric

A bit of a chat with Robert Wringham – Part 2 – Comedy, characters, dreams…

Robert Wringham is not his real name…

Yesterday’s blog finished with:

ROBERT: So, when I moved to Scotland, I thought: I’m taking that name! It’s sort of similar to mine and the thing about that book is it’s about doppelgängers. So I thought: My persona is going to be my evil twin. He’s going to do the stuff that I don’t do in real life.

Now read on…


JOHN: I am not in any way a performer. No talent; no interest in doing it. There is a different mindset between performers and writers, isn’t there? I’m not remotely a performer. I can’t ad-lib fluently in spoken speech, whereas I can write I think fluently quite quickly.

ROBERT: I don’t want to be truly me performing on stage; I want to be a character. I think I can just about hold my own in terms of fast thoughts, but what I can’t do is play the character at the same time. However, in Stern Plastic Owl and my other books, I think I CAN do that.

JOHN: So, when you were a stand-up, it was character comedy…

ROBERT: Not like Alan Partridge. It’s like what I said about ‘Robert Wringham’ and the doppelgänger. I want this clear line between the real me and what I’m showing, otherwise it’s not actually a creative act. I don’t want to go out there and just talk. I want to have a character and that was why I was not very good as a performer. I couldn’t really do that.

The way I’ve found round that problem is to do these books. 

JOHN: By and large, I don’t like character comedy because, in television, I got typed as a finder of bizarre and/or eccentric ‘real people’. So I know there are loads of eccentric or even just slightly unusual people out there – well, most people are slightly unusual – and they are really interesting. So why should I watch someone pretending to be eccentric or unusual when they are not? – They are just analysing someone who isn’t themselves and fabricating a character to hide behind.

Charlie Chuck is not a subtle character study of a real type…

The closer a character act is to being real, the less I’m interested. The more ‘cartoony’ they are, the more I’m interested. Charlie Chuck springs to mind. Charlie Chuck (real name Dave Kear) is not a subtle character study of a real type of person.

ROBERT: One of my favourite comics is Harry Hill (real name Matthew Hall) and a lot of people don’t really think of him as a character comic although he is. You could not be like that in real life. I assume Matthew Hall at home is going to be nothing like Harry Hill.

JOHN: Yes, he’s a cartoon character – in a good way. I think really good straight stand-up comedians on stage are themselves, but slightly heightened versions of themselves. And then there are the OTT cartoony-type ones. But stand-up ‘character comedy’ tends to be just wannabe actors showing off their abilities, not performers who inherently have that odd ‘comedian’ gene.

I also don’t particularly like slow-speaking comedians. If I pay to see Jerry Sadowitz, I’m getting value for money in the words-per-minute, but slow comedians, by-and-large, I think: Just get on with it! I never liked Jack Benny. Too slow. Although, oddly, I liked George Burns.

ROBERT: To me, ‘slow’ is the ultimate cool because it’s the opposite of… When you’re nervous on stage, you go fast. A slow-speaking comedian instills a certain confidence in the room. You think: Oh! This guy knows what he’s doing! He’s going to slowly reveal the routine. It’s also very funny: almost as if they don’t care what the audience thinks.

JOHN: I guess maybe George Burns felt more Jewish to me, which I like. Jack Benny was maybe less ‘American Jewish’ humour.

ROBERT: My partner is Jewish and Jewish is a big part of our shared life. In my secret mind, ‘Robert Wringham’ is Jewish, though I don’t tend to talk about it on the page. My favourite humorists are all Jewish. 

JOHN: S.J. Perelman?

ROBERT: Yeah. Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz, Jon Ronson.

JOHN: So what’s next for you after Stern Plastic Owl?

ROBERT: I’m working on my novel. It’s almost done.

JOHN: Tell me it really IS about sitting in a bathtub and it’s called Rub-a-Dub-Dub

ROBERT: Yes! It is!

JOHN: A lucky guess on my part. What’s the plot?

ROBERT: I think ‘plot’ is old hat. So, instead of going wide with a plot, go deep. It’s about the conscious state you have when you’re in the bath. You’re nostalgic. You’re thinking back. There’s this time machine effect. You’re thinking back to you childhood. So that’s what my guy in the book does. He’s remembering things, thinking of his worries, thinking on his body. There’s a lot of stuff about the body in it.

There is something called phenomenological writing, which is just the real nitty-gritty of what surrounds you. You’d be surprised how you can make that interesting.

JOHN: As I speak to you, I am looking at a squeezy pink double decker bus standing in front of a painting of a nun sitting in front of a station/cathedral. What is phenomenological writing?

“I am looking at a squeezy pink double decker bus standing in front of a painting of a nun…”

ROBERT: It’s really old. It’s a French thing. For example, Georges Perec did one where it was all in one building, but it was into the nitty-gritties. So he’d be talking about the design on the carpet for ages and going into the shagpile of this single room or the individual books in the bookcase and what they were. And it would all be in the service of something: like This is the character of the person who lives there. But it would be really deep into the nitty-gritty.

You would think: That can’t possibly be fun to read. But, actually, it’s really entertaining and interesting. What I’m doing and what Georges Perec did is playing it for laughs.

JOHN: I remember reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch and wondering why she went into such detailed descriptions of people’s houses… until I realised the descriptions were actually also descriptions of each householder’s personality. The houses personified their occupants. 

This blog bit is just pure self-indulgence…

You were talking about dreams earlier on. I’m interested because I have an unidentified medical problem. I used to sleep soundly and deeply and never remembered my dreams. But now I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since June 2020 – I wake up literally every hour and, of course, sometimes I wake up in the middle of a dream. I always wanted to remember my dreams because I assumed they would be surreal but they’re not. The dreams I have are very realistic not surrealistic. They have narrative storylines running through them. I am disappointed. You sound like you have better dreams.  

ROBERT: Mine aren’t stories at all. If I do something very repetitive during the day – like doing the washing-up – that’ll end up in my dream. Repetitive things go in. Embarrassingly dull.

JOHN: I don’t seem to have nightmares. Do you?

ROBERT: No. And, if I do write things down in my notebook, it’s always things like Stern Plastic Owl. I DID once write down Stoat: Hospital with a colon between the two words. I can’t even begin to imagine what that means. 

JOHN: I can only dream of having dreams which are that weird.

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Eccentrics, Performance

A bit of a chat with Robert Wringham – Part 1 – The Stern Plastic Owl man…

Robert Wringham describes himself as a ‘humorist’… His latest book is 2021’s Stern Plastic Owl.

His first book, in 2012, was You Are Nothing (about Simon Munnery, Stewart Lee et al’s comedy show Cluub Zarathustra).

After that, he wrote A Loose Egg (2014), which was shortlisted for Canada’s 2015 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.

His 2016 book Escape Everything! was a spin-off from the New Escapologist, a lifestyle magazine he edited and published 2007-2017 and which continues as a series of online essays. New Escapologist describes itself as “the journal of the art of getting out of things” and suggests that “work has too central a position in Western life”.

Escape Everything! was successful enough to be translated into German and released in Germany, Austria and Switzerland as Ich Bin Raus and then, in 2018, in South Korea as [] 탈출하라. No doubt to further confuse readers, it was also republished in the UK in 2021 in English as I’m Out: How To Make an Exit.

Meanwhile, in 2020, in English, Robert had written The Good Life For Wage Slaves, which was re-published in Germany as Das gute Leben.

He had also written a regular column 2016-2020 in The Idler, a magazine whose declared aim is to “return dignity to the art of loafing” and had written for a variety of other esteemed outlets including Meat, The Skinny, the British Comedy Guide, Playboy etc etc etc.

Obviously, I had to have a chat with Robert.

It would have been churlish not to.

He lives in Glasgow and Montreal (his partner is Canadian), so we talked via FaceTime.


JOHN: You have said: “The highest form of human activity is the shenanigan”…

ROBERT: It makes sense, right? What could be better than a mischievous, spontaneous act?

JOHN: ARE you a mischievous, spontaneous act?

ROBERT: That’s what I aspire to.

JOHN: You describe yourself ‘a humorist’.

ROBERT: There’s a thing on Wikipedia at the moment about the definition of ‘humorist’ which says it’s “an intellectual who uses comedy to get his or her point across”. And that nails it for me. I don’t want to think of myself as an intellectual, but I do like the idea that I’m trying to communicate a ‘point’ packaged nicely with humour, so you can get inside somebody. It’s the sugar pill, right?

“I think it’s to do with anti-pigeon…”

JOHN: Why is your latest book called Stern Plastic Owl?

ROBERT: That’s a theme. My previous similar miscellany book was called A Loose Egg because I got hung up on that phase “a loose egg”. It came about by accident, because there was a loose egg in our fridge back in Canada.

Stern Plastic Owl is a random phrase too. Like all comedians and writers, I have a notebook nearby at all times, including by my bed. There is an idea that sleeping should be when your fertile ideas come up although, really, what I write down in the night is gibberish. But it feels like it’s a resource I should use and one of the phrases that stood out was Stern Plastic Owl. I didn’t know what it meant.

So there is a story in the book where I try to work out what it means. It’s kind of a detective story in the middle of the book.

JOHN: So did you find out what it means?

ROBERT: Not exactly. But I think it’s to do with anti-pigeon, do you know what I mean?

JOHN: No.

ROBERT: An anti-pigeon device. You’ve got an owl and you put it up on your roof to scare pigeons away. There’s one nearby and I think I must have seen that and it came back to me in a dream. So I tried my best to write a piece around one of those stern plastic anti-pigeon owls.

JOHN: I’ve never heard of this before. Are you telling me, if I come up to Glasgow there are fake owls on window sills and roofs all over the place.

ROBERT: They’re everywhere.

JOHN: You were a stand-up comic.

“I never got a horrible heckle ever…”

ROBERT: One of the very brief things from my very brief stand-up period was my come-back to hecklers: “Sir, you cannot count the number of cylinders I’m firing on”. I’m still happy with that. I never got to use it, but it was just there on standby. I never got a horrible heckle ever.

JOHN: You were too loveable?

ROBERT: Probably too young. A lot of audiences are just polite if you look very young.

JOHN: Why did you give up stand-up?

ROBERT: My favourite thing was writing the jokes and fine-tuning them. The hardest part was making it sound good, sound spontaneous. I didn’t enjoy the late nights or the Green Room badinage. I have met a lot of wonderful comedians in Green Rooms but I never felt I was holding my own in those conversations.

JOHN: You wrote that one great climb-down of your life was “pointing your imagination in the direction of writing rather than performance”.

ROBERT: Well, that’s not really true. That’s just what I put in the book. It didn’t really feel like a climb-down. I just didn’t want to tell the story in the other direction which was I was travelling in a favourable direction to the thing I wanted to do. I didn’t think there was any comedy in saying that.

JOHN: Is it a book full of lies? Like comedy routines?

ROBERT: Oh completely. The idea of what is true is something that is always on my mind a lot. For example, my real name is not Wringham. My actual passport name is Westwood. Robert Westwood.

 I wanted to change my name and be a persona. So, when I’m on the page or on the stage, it’s a separate thing. 

JOHN: Why Wringham?

Agraman aka The Human Anagram, John Marshall, c2018

ROBERT: I was always entertained by people like The Human Anagram (aka Agraman aka John Marshall) in the 1980s, but I wanted to do something else. I like horror novels and there’s one called The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

 It’s of the age of Frankenstein, but it’s Scottish and I think that’s why no-one has given a shit about it and it’s unjustifiably obscure. The villain in that is called Robert Wringham.

So, when I moved to Scotland, I thought: I’m taking that name! It’s sort of similar to mine and the thing about that book is it’s about doppelgängers. So I thought: My persona is going to be my evil twin. He’s going to do the stuff that I don’t do in real life.

(… CONTINUED HERE … )

Robert’s books have been published in the UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and South Korea

 

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Filed under Books, Humor, Humour, Surreal

Award-winning Janet Bettesworth: her Mercenaries novel and a Ukraine song

Walking a tight-rope on a roller-coaster

Stand-up comedian and comedy club promoter Janet Bettesworth has published her first novel Mercenaries

The blurb says it “plunges into the no-holds-barred dark world of Airbnb machinations” in which “Carla, a comedian, and Louise, an actress, are bribed by an elderly landlady, Alice to… extract revenge… A mélange of gruesome memories emerges as events unfold”.

And… “This plot line walks a tight-rope on a roller-coaster! And includes all you need to know about Butlins Holiday Camp Margate, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, racism, Airbnbs, #MeToo, bribery, the Royals, insects, coffins, croissants, failed comedians and revenge.”

Janet started creating the book by posting a series of her portraits of characters on Facebook (I blogged about it in 2020) and asking people to suggest their backgrounds.

So I had a chat with Janet and fellow comic Peter Stanford at her undeniably prestigious book launch in South London.


JOHN: So why write this book?

JANET: The genesis was when I won £1,000 in a writing competition.

JOHN: From whom?

JANET: The Oldie magazine. The topic was The worst job I’ve ever had.

JOHN: Which was?

JANET: Being a waitress at a Butlin’s holiday camp in Margate. I had to go to the Garrick Club where The Oldie held their Award thing. I went with (comedian) Will Franken. 

The evening dragged on and they hadn’t told me when the presentation was going to happen. I really needed to go to the loo and thought: When on earth is it going to be time to give out the prize? Everyone was drinking away so I thought I’ll quickly just nip to the loo and the next thing I knew there was a banging on the door of the toilet and it was Will Franken…

JOHN: This was the Ladies toilet? 

JANET: Yes.

JOHN: Was he dressed as a lady?

JANET: No. But, by the time I got back, they had lugged (comedy icon) Barry Cryer on to fill the gap because there was no Me to be seen anywhere… Barry Cryer was in the middle of one of his parrot jokes but they kind of wheeled me on and I looked a bit shamefaced… When they wrote it up in The Oldie, it was all my fault this had happened: the person who didn’t really know what they were doing.

PETER: One would have thought they would have checked you were there before making the announcement…

JANET: Exactly! OR told me when it was going to happen.

JOHN: … or done the presentation in the toilet.

JANET: Before all that, I had been going round the room talking to various people who didn’t know anything about me. But, after the presentation, everyone was incredibly much more friendly. So I talked to Maureen Lipman and also to this really nice woman called Elizabeth Luard and she said: Have you ever thought of writing a book? And I said I genuinely felt it was beyond me.

I’d read hundreds of books and quite often I would be so full of admiration for the writer but I would think it was one step too far: I wouldn’t be able to do it.

JOHN: So why did you do The Oldie competition if you weren’t interested in writing yourself?

JANET: Well, I could write short things. Like for comedy writing….

But Elizabeth Luard said: If you can write something like the short Oldie piece, all you need to do is get ten more bits of that length and sew them all together.

JOHN: So the book is not so much a novel, more like a series of vignettes.

JANET: You’ve not read the book, have you?

JOHN: No.

Former art teacher Janet’s portrait of Peter Stanford…

PETER: Do you even own a copy of the book?

JOHN: I was hit by a truck in 1991 and can’t read books. I can write them, but I can’t read them.

PETER: You could always buy it and not read it…

JOHN: When is the audio book coming out?

JANET: Actually, a blind friend of mine asked the same thing. But I’ve never had anything published before and I’m completely new and it’s a strange world to me. My husband reads to me every single day, usually in the afternoon. I love being read to and he loves reading things out loud. We’ve read the Diaries of Alan Clark and… 

PETER: Does your husband do all the voices?

JANET: Yes. He always does the voices. I have actually had part of Mercenaries read out loud by a voice artist: Seanie Ruttledge.

 He read out the very first bit, which is quite pornographic.

JOHN: That’s a good start. If they read the first five pages, they’ll get some porn.

JANET: Oh, there’s plenty more after that.

JOHN: Why is the book called Mercenaries?

JANET: One of the themes is the difference in outlook between the generations. You have two women – the slightly younger generation – who are tangentially in the comedy or acting worlds. One of them is a vegan and she is very Me Too; and the other one is an elderly woman called Alice. So it’s the way she is viewed.

JOHN: Autobiographical in some way? 

JANET: I am 77 at the moment. When I was about 68, that’s when I started doing stand-up comedy and, in a way, going to all these gigs was a bit like going back to my youth. The kind of atmosphere of going to all these gigs was like a kind of renaissance, in a way.

Janet’s impression of me as an East End street trader…?

JOHN: It gave you a new lease of life?

JANET: Yes. And it gave me a sort of different prism to see the world.

JOHN: And the relevance of that to the book is…?

JANET: Well, they’re both aspects of me.

JOHN: So, if you’re describing different aspects of yourself, did it make you understand something more about yourself?

JANET: (DUBIOUSLY) I suppose so, yes. The hard part was trying to put it more together so there was some sort of plot.

JOHN: The easy bit was the pornography?

JANET: I dunno.

JOHN: You are an arty person as opposed to a wordy person. You were an Art teacher…

JANET: (DUBIOUSLY) Is it not possible to have both interests?

JOHN: Yes, but I thought maybe you were a fulfilled arty person and an unfulfilled wordy person.

JANET: I suppose. 

JOHN: Have you an idea for another book in your brain?

JANET: I did have the other day, but… 

JOHN: I know. I can’t remember what happened yesterday.

JANET: All the proceeds are going to the Ukraine, by the way. 

PETER: The book was published after the Russians invaded Ukraine.

JOHN: So the profits go to Ukraine charities for how long? Forever?

Janet checks the Ukrainian song’s lyrics…

JANET: Why not? Until Ukraine stops needing it, I suppose.

JOHN: So, if it’s all going to Ukraine, you’re going to earn nothing from this.

JANET: Great.

JOHN: So are you going to write another book?

JANET: I don’t know. I just have to wait for…

(AT THIS POINT, PETER PULLED OUT A PIECE OF SHEET MUSIC…)

PETER: We can sing. Here’s a song in Ukrainian. 19th century.

(JANET, WHO CAN READ MUSIC, STARTED SINGING “A PRAYER FOR UKRAINE”…)

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The ‘unfilmable’ Wrong People – in a movie that has taken 50 years to make

David’s next project is very un-comedic…

The last time I chatted to David McGillivray was in May 2019 BC…

Before Covid.

This year he celebrates his 40th year writing for Julian Clary but also he is about to direct a movie of Robin Maugham’s controversial 1967 novel The Wrong People. The pitch is… 

Set against the backdrop of 1960s Tangier, this thriller tells the story of Arnold Turner, a repressed English schoolmaster on holiday in Morocco, where he meets Ewing Baird, a wealthy American expat with a dark secret. As Turner becomes more involved with Ewing he realises he has been lured into a dangerous trap.

So, obviously, David and I had a chat…


JOHN: The Wrong People… Very definitely a million miles away from the world of comedy. You’re directing it…

DAVID: It’s happening this summer.

JOHN: It’s described as “a thriller” but it sounds Arty to me.

DAVID: It’s a brilliant piece of writing and indeed a thrilling adventure as well as being a searing piece of social comment.

JOHN: …from the 1960s. Making movies is not easy.

DAVID: Well, the story of trying to get this film made starts 50 years ago when I was writing House of Whipcord and Frightmare for director Pete Walker and he was telling me about his Hollywood actor chum Sal Mineo, who was in London at the time, trying to set up The Wrong People as a film.

David with his well-thumbed copy of the book

Around that same time The Wrong People was re-published in paperback under Robin Maugham’s own name. Earlier, he had published it under a pseudonym – David Griffin – because that’s what his uncle Somerset Maugham recommended.

JOHN: Because…?

DAVID: Because of the subject matter. Sal Mineo was trying to set up the film but Pete Walker said to me: “They’ll never make it.” So I went and bought the book and, like Somerset Maugham, I read it in one sitting. I went back into Mr Walker’s office the next day and said: “You’re right. They’ll never make a film of it.”

Sal Mineo went to all manner of screenwriters. (Peter Shaffer, Edna O’Brien, David Sherwin etc) They all said No because they found the subject matter distasteful. He did get a script out of a children’s writer who had I think written episodes of Doctor Who. But his script was deemed not really suitable and they ended up with – what a surprise – Pete Walker’s screenwriter Murray Smith. I’ve never seen his script. There may have been other scripts – maybe one by Robin Maugham himself – but they have all disappeared. Anyway, Murray did one that Sal also didn’t like. So the whole project was doomed, really.

“I found it winking at me on the shelf”

Sal was unable to make the film. He returned to Los Angeles in 1974 and two years later was murdered. After that, I never thought a thing about The Wrong People until I found Sal Mineo: A Biography winking at me on the shelf. It was published in 2010 and there is an entire chapter on The Wrong People.

I read the original Maugham book again and decided that night: Right! I’m going to make the film myself!

JOHN: When I talked to you about The Wrong People back in 2019, you were looking for a director at that point. You were not going to direct it yourself.

DAVID: I ended up seeing a lot of people who weren’t that keen on directing it in the first place and, in all honesty, with whom – half of them – I didn’t want to work. One or two of them had the most extraordinary ideas about what they wanted to do with the material.

Then, when I was on a 65 bus, I decided Oh! This is going to go on for years! I’ll direct it myself.

So I scripted a version and contacted a distributor who had put out a couple of my other films. He liked it, but said it needed a re-write. So I contacted my old friend Peter Benedict and we are now up to Draft 7. He’s very good on structure.

JOHN: Why did you originally not want to direct it?

DAVID: I’m not a born director. I’m more of a producer. I’m not bad at organising. But, during the intervening years since 2014, my confidence has grown; I think I can make a fist of it now.

JOHN: Ooh… So what is the audience for the film? It’s an arty, gay, adventurous thriller? 

“…I would prefer not to lose all my money but if I break even that would be lovely…”

DAVID: Obviously it’s never going to play the Odeon, Leicester Square. It’s an arthouse picture that will have a limited audience. That’s fine with me. I would prefer not to lose all my money but if I break even that would be lovely.

JOHN: It’s your own money?

DAVID: Of course, as always. Nobody would ever dream of giving me a penny.

JOHN: When we chatted in 2019, you did say it would be quite expensive to film.

DAVID: Yes… well… the budget has been… reduced… We have had to compromise; it’s the name of the game. I’ve done it all my life. So it’s no longer three weeks location in Morocco. It’s now going to be done via the miracle of green screen.

Maugham was an under-rated talent. He’s only really known for The Servant. The Wrong People is written very filmically and that’s because he worked on quite a few films. He understood cinema and that was the reason I loved it when I read it. I could picture it all. He writes like a screenwriter.

Robin Maugham in 1974 (Photo by Allan Warren)

JOHN: I’ve never seen The Servant, but it’s a gay film and made in 1963…

DAVID: The Servant was heterosexualised. It was straightened up and, unless you were in the know, you would never be aware that it’s a gay story. It was, again, based on Maugham’s own experiences and, although the novel is slightly gay, it was mostly straightened up because the market wouldn’t have accepted it in those days. 

The film is brilliant but bizarre. I mean, there’s an orgy in it with Dirk Bogarde and a load of women and Robin Maugham quite rightly said: “The orgy scene at the end of the film was a cock-up. It was obvious to anyone that neither (screenwriter Harold) Pinter nor (director) Joe Losey had ever been to one.” And he’s right; it looks just so unreal.

JOHN: And you have experience of orgies?

“You’ll find I don’t mention any orgies…”

DAVID: I wouldn’t say orgies exactly, John. Did I admit to orgies in my autobiography? I think you’ll find I don’t mention any orgies.

JOHN: Because…?

DAVID: I didn’t go to any.

JOHN: But your house was a den of iniquity.

DAVID: We didn’t have orgies there, John. Other things went on in that house.

JOHN: Such as…?

DAVID: Didn’t we have this conversation three years ago? 

JOHN: But my reader in Guatemala may have forgotten.,,

DAVID: It’s all in my autobiography Little Did You Know. It is well worth a read.

JOHN: You’ve said Maugham created “a moral dilemma” in The Wrong People – What moral dilemma?

DAVID: Because The Wrong People is about child abuse. It was a difficult subject then; it’s a difficult subject today. But for different reasons… Now almost nobody will even discuss the subject. I’m going to bring it out into the open again. Because the subject has to be discussed. Child abuse goes on. It’s been swept under the carpet. 

JOHN: Really? I’ve written down here: Jeffrey Epstein; Kevin Spacey.

DAVID: Well, these high-profile cases peek out from the top of the parapets, but what we’re concerned with is what Maugham was concerned with in his book – the secret child abuse that goes on that is never reported. It was far more common in 1967 because people turned a blind eye to it. Now we KNOW it goes on but, as I say, we can’t discuss it.

Maugham very cleverly invents a situation that makes the reader – as I’m going to make the cinema audience – think twice about this subject and you’ll have to see the film in order to find out more.

A publicity folder for Sal Mineo’s unfilmed Wrong People…

JOHN: There is, the publicity blurb says, a “shockingly unexpected conclusion”.

DAVID: I don’t think the audience will know what’s going to happen next. That’s the genius of Maugham’s writing. You can’t imagine where this story is going. Towards the end, there are some marvellous twists. And the ending is… Alright, I’m going to tell you – I don’t think I’ve admitted this before – I have changed the ending. Well, it was Peter Benedict originally, to give him the credit. But it makes it even more powerful.

JOHN: He wakes up in the shower and it’s all been a dream?

DAVID: It’s a lovely idea but, of course, that’s not what happens.

JOHN: …and then the aliens arrive…?

DAVID: There are no aliens in The Wrong People, John.

JOHN: Is there a car chase?

DAVID: I’m afraid it’s not that kind of a film. It’s an arthouse movie for a specific audience.

JOHN: Well I guess, despite the lack of a car chase, I’m just gonna have to see it to the end…

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