Yesterday, with my eternally-un-named friend, I went to comedian Bob Slayer’s home for dinner.
Bob had a bad cough, but regaled us with tales of his early days as a jockey. He broke his back and had to stop riding horses.
It also turned out, not surprisingly, that his mother was born in a pub. Bob, more often than not, downs at least one pint in a single gulp during his stage act.
“My mum was born in the Wheelbarrow Castle pub at Radford in Worcestershire,” he told me, “which my great-grandfather owned and it went out of the family for a long time, but my uncle has recently bought it to bring it back into the family. They lost the farm – my other uncle lost the farm because he pissed it away.”
“Is he alive?” I asked.
“Yes,” Bob replied.
“Then that’s potentially libel,” I said.
“No, I don’t think it’s libel,” said Bob. “Uncle John would say Well, I did piss it away, yeah. My youngest uncle Martin was in short trousers while John was pissing the farm away. Martin is Gemma, my cousin’s, dad – she’s the one you met who helped me run The Hive venue at the Edinburgh Fringe…
“My Uncle Martin re-bought the Wheelbarrow Castle but what he didn’t realise at the time was that he had bought a gay pub.”
“Ah,” I said, “so this is the pub where you suggested we go see The Wurzels perform in October.”
“Yes,” said Bob.
“A gay pub with The Wurzels performing?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Bob. “And, in this pub, my mother was born.”
“Was she gay?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” replied Bob. “but I was at a wedding once…”
“A gay wedding?” I asked.
“No but, at my other cousin’s wedding… He was the first of my cousins to get married… and my uncle came up and said I think it’s about time you heard all about Guzzleguts. And I asked What’s that, Uncle Anthony? And he said When your mum was a teenager, she used to be called Guzzleguts.
“My mum is one of nine… Well, eight, because Uncle David died last week… but all the brothers would drink in the family pub and they would play pool and people would be travelling through and they’d hustle them and it would get to the stage where they were pissed and they’d lost money and big stakes were going down and they’d say Ah! I bet even our sister could beat you at downing a pint! And these big bets would be put down and then my mother would be brought in and two pints put down on the table and my mum would Phrooom! guzzleguts this pint down. And that’s where I get it from.
“Apparently they also used to interrupt her doing her school work – she was a real swot when she was a teenager – lie her on the bar, put a funnel in her mouth and they would pour three pints into her and they would have had a bet on that – We bet you our sister can down three pints in under so many minutes.”
“And this is where we are going to see The Wurzels?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Bob.
“You told me,” I prompted, “the original Wurzel died in a tragic Marc Bolan style car crash?”
“More tragic than Marc Bolan,” said Bob. “Marc Bolan was a very influential and interesting musician, but he wasn’t really up there with Adge Cutler.
“The band was originally called Adge Cutler and The Wurzels… Adge was driving home from a gig in Hereford in his MGB sports car 1974 and he ran into a tractor and died and I think that’s the most rock ‘n’ roll death ever.”
“No connection with combine harvesters?” I asked.
“Well,” said Bob, “I was originally told he ran into a combine harvester, but that was an exaggeration. It was a tractor. He was full of cider as well, I’d like to say. Cider and acid. That’s a bloody good combination.”
“Lots of drinking in Archers country?” I asked.
“It was very interesting for me to learn about alcoholics,” said Bob, “in a family where they are all pissheads. Their attitude towards alcoholism was Well, you could tell she had a problem, because she hid it. We ain’t got a problem, do we? Cos we don’t hide it. I was taught that when I was growing up: You’re not an alcoholic if you don’t feel the need to hide it.”
“So,” I asked, “alcoholism was not so much a warning as an aspiration?”
“I think so,” said Bob, “yeah,” and then he had a coughing fit.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.
“I’ve only got one brother,” said Bob. “But I’ve got fifty cousins… I’ve got nine uncles and aunts and most of them are re-married, so…”
“Not 49 or 51 cousins but 50 exactly?” I asked.
“Well, it might be 51 by now,” said Bob. “We do get the odd extras. But they’re all really ugly….” He turned to my eternally-un-named friend: “Going back to this conversation earlier where you decided that 99% of sex-changers do it for the wrong reasons, based on the ones you knew… John here has met one of my cousins – Gemma – at the Edinburgh Fringe, so he would extrapolate that they’re all gorgeous but she is the only one. She is the exception that proves the rule that all the Fernihoughs are ugly as… I’m also related to Ted Edgar.”
“Who?” I asked.
“A showjumper,” replied Bob. “And I’m related to George Formby.”
“No,” I said.
“Yes.” said Bob. “George Formby was a jockey, from a horse racing family. The Edgar side of the family is related to George Formby’s dad. His sister is like my cousin’s great-grandmother.”
“The frightening thing about living in the 21st century,” I said to my eternally-un-named friend, “is that, before we get home, Bob will have changed the Wikipedia entry on George Formby so that all this is true.”
“Look at it now,” said Bob.
And I did. The Wikipedia entry said:
In 1921, three months after the death of his father, Formby abandoned his career as a jockey and began appearing in music halls using his father’s material. At first he called himself George Hoy, using the name of his maternal grandfather, who came from Newmarket, Suffolk, where the family was engaged in racehorse training.
“George Formby Senior – George Formby’s dad,” said Bob, “was a performer and used his money to set up racing stables. George Formby became a jockey to please his dad and had maybe twenty or thirty 2nds – he had loads of rides – but never rode a winner. He was going to take over the stables but, when his dad died prematurely, his mum persuaded him to go on the stage.
“His sister took over the stables and that’s the side of the family that has relations to my mother. My mother’s grandmother was George Formby’s sister; so my mother’s great-grandfather was George Formby Senior.
“George Formby was born blind or he didn’t open his eyes until, at the age of six months or so, he had a violent coughing fit and opened his eyes for the first time.”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” said Bob. “Check Wikipedia.
The entry read:
Formby was born blind because of an obstructive caul. His sight was restored during a violent coughing fit or sneeze when he was a few months old.
“I’ve even got George Formby’s chest at the moment,” said Bob, “with this sore throat and the coughing. Coughing was quite a thing in the Formby family. George Formby stopped being blind after he had a coughing fit. His dad George Formby Senior had been neglected by his parents and left out; he often slept rough and he ended up busking and that’s how he got into performing, so he had a bad chest and later TB and that’s what killed him. He would often cough up a lung on stage but make a joke of it and bet the audience he could out-cough them.”
“So he was an early TB star?” I asked.
“It’s getting late,” said Bob.