Celebrity Books? You're Having a Laugh

Just because they know how to act a tit on the telly, does that really mean they turn philosopher when pen hits page?
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Just because they know how to act a tit on the telly, does that really mean they turn philosopher when pen hits page?

‘The food was curry, which I really like, as does Cliff, I think.’

We know he is uncertain about monkey swims, but we can get closer to Cliff now we know his possible dietary requirements. Who has spied on him to turn over this stone?

These are the immortal words of Syd Little from the popular double act Little and Large. And so – like most things in British culture – everything comes full circle to Cliff Richard. Syd’s Little Goes a Long Way (HarperCollins, 1999) completes the great triumvirate of books that spurred me into action. It is the only one I ever bought where the postage cost 275 times the purchase price. It was bought on a hunch. Firstly, I was drawn to the pun, ‘Little Goes a Long Way’; secondly, I couldn’t help but wonder what lay behind the thick-lensed face of the man who kept trying to play his songs before Eddie Large caterwauled in and ruined the mood with a Deputy Dawg impersonation.

Some enjoy showbiz autobiographies for the magnitude of the life experienced, but I prefer the magnitude of the self-delusion. Ever since David Niven’s magnificent The Moon’s A Balloon (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972), any old weather forecaster or beauty queen has felt compelled to tell their story. Is there really a difference between winning an Oscar for Separate Tables then leading a thrillingly urbane life in Hollywood, and opening a dry cleaner’s in Prestwich? I think there is, but I couldn’t even name the current lineup of the Sugababes, so what do I know?

Some celebrities use their foray into autobiography to show there is a depth in their thinking that may well have been hidden by their career in variety. They might know how to receive a pie in the face, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a corner of their brain reserved for philosophical pronouncements. Little is never afraid of showing off his more philosophical side (though there’s still plenty of leg room for anecdotes about curries and panto or the excellence of green-room chicken sandwiches on This is Your Life): ‘Being childless is a bit like getting a new car, say a Ford Escort. Before you bought one, you never took too much notice of them, but as soon as you buy one you see hundreds.’

Little’s publishing history is a stark object lesson in what happens when you employ a ghost-writer. Little Goes a Long Way seems to be Syd’s own work; it lacks the gloss of the ghost-writer’s hand and that only adds charm and authenticity to the words of Syd. But the TV comedian and sometime pantomime Baron Hardup, and Cannon and Ball sidekick in the Christian proselytising game, was far from content with Long Way, and five years later, Canterbury Press unleashed Little by Little, this time with the helping hand of ghost Chris Gidney, who religiously ironed out every kink that had brought such unalloyed joy in the previous publication. Compare the following two descriptions about encountering Cliff in the Taj Mahal restaurant, Ealing. First, Little Goes a Long Way:

We met him once after he’d recorded ‘A Little in Love’.

He came over and said hello.

‘Thanks for dedicating the song to me, Cliff,’ I said.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘a “little” in love.’ He did laugh.

"Is there a difference between winning an Oscar, leading a thrillingly urbane life in Hollywood, and opening a dry cleaner’s in Prestwich? I think so, but I couldn’t even name the current lineup of the Sugababes, so what do I know?"

(‘He did laugh.’ This is one of the most important sentences in the book. It is a sentence of brevity – a mere three words, but a very important three words. Syd makes it emphatically clear that Cliff laughed. People often described Eddie Large as the funny one in the double act, but in this Ealing restaurant we know who is wearing the trousers; it is Syd.

Now, in 2004, Little by Little retells the same story. This version does add some historical references to the changing nature of Indian food served in the UK, but it destroys Syd’s trademark anecdotal delivery.

I couldn’t resist going over, saying hello and thanking him for the new record he had just released in our honour, ‘A Little in Love’. I’m glad he got the joke. But how does the reader know Richard got the joke? Five years before, Syd allowed us those three precious and wholly unequivocal words, ‘He did laugh.’ Now some of Little’s more regular readers are beginning to suspect that the erstwhile Shadows frontman might only have proffered a smile, or a vague nod of recognition. Possibly merely a glassy stare.

With the purchase of Little Goes a Long Way, my destiny was set. When I should have been chatting eruditely about Proust and Joyce in literary salons, my life would now be spent poring over books by psychic women who believe they were John Lennon’s lover in sixteenth-century Dorset. But more of that one later.

I have spent a great deal of my life in second-hand bookshops and book fairs in the back rooms of hotels and village halls. I had been mining books on science, philosophy and imaginative fiction, but now, as I returned to those village halls I first encountered when my trousers were short and my voice was higher, I had to retune my eyes for new spines and peer down at shelves that I had never rummaged through. When I was ten I had looked for Edgar Allan Poe; when I was fifteen it was the Beats and other self-involved coffee-bar jazzniks; when I was twenty-five it was anything that would help refine my anxiety, the work of Frenchmen and Colin Wilson. Now, in my mid-thirties, it was stories of irradiated rats and lonely women hopeful to wed one day.

The pilgrimage to discover the truly odd, the sometimes bad and the occasionally baffling has been challenging. It’s easy to find a classic – there’s no epic journey required to get your hands on one. Simply walk into a bookshop, demand to know where the classics are and choose your tome. The decision about what is deemed worthy has already been made. How much trickier it is to track down exquisite drivel, horribly misguided prose plumbing unimaginable depths, dreadful hacks who traverse the mundane to make the bland blissful. You can’t walk into a bookshop and say,

‘Where are the wrong books, please? Do you stock any books that should never have been published?’ I’ve tried, but they won’t tell you where they keep them. By the end of this book, your eye will be so keen for the gloriously pulpy and your senses so sharp that you will be able to smell a killer-toads-try-to-take-over-the-world book from two hundred feet.

Extract from 'Robin Ince's Bad Book Club: One Man's Quest to Uncover the Books That Taste Forgot'.

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