Monday, 14 January 2013

Week Two - Jude

Going To Sea In A Sieve: The Autobiography by Danny Baker (2012)
Recommended by Oliver Shepherd

So this week Jeanette has read a book about the Armenian genocide, and I've also read a memoir, full of drama and intrigue, which...oh Lawd, I can't go on in this vein because it's too bloomin' tasteless. I've read Danny Baker's autobiography. But first let me tell you about the person who recommended it.

When I first met Sheffield's Oliver Shepherd, he convinced gullible 23-year-old me, through the medium of drink, that he had been sacked from the original line-up of 911 because he was a) too tall and b) too fat. Initially, perhaps because of dented pride more than anything, I assumed he was a bit of a plonker, but soon realised he was, and always will be, Yorkshire's Funniest FunnyMan. Liverpool nightclubs still mourn his university years, when he pranced around the Krazy House like an indie-pop Nureyev; alternative comedy still weeps for the loss of his alter-ego Royston Royston, a contemporary dance instructor that Vic Reeves would have adored. More than a decade later, Oliver is now a very respectable manager, husband, and father-of-two, but I still miss his Victory Dance, a t-shirt-over-the head-manoeuvre often seen at Finsbury Park's Rowan's Bowling Alley in the early 2000s. Saying that, his daughter did the same move at her 2nd birthday party, while simultaneously trying to eat a bread-stick. So things are OK. The Shepherd genes are safe.

I first met Danny Baker, South-Of-The-River's Favourite Funnyman, even earlier. I was 21, fresh as a spring flower, at the start of my first (and only) shift at The Crown in Brewer Street, Soho. I had been in London about three weeks, and he was my first customer, barrelling into the pub after a shift on Virgin Radio. Here it was, I thought, giddily: proof that London was full of stars. Not that I wasn't a fan of Baker at the time. He was the rowdy git off TFI Friday, that knob from the Daz adverts. But I'd served someone famous a pint, and hooray, that made London MINE.

Four years later, I was working at Word Magazine, still completely dazzled at how such a miracle could have happened. In the first Christmas issue, we ran five pieces about the history of pop, with five writers making a case for a different decade being the best. Danny was chosen to write the '70s section, which confused me no end. At that point, I had no knowledge of his teenage years at the legendary Mayfair record-shop One Stop, of his involvement in punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue, of his time as receptionist at the NME. But then I did and how I did. Mark Ellen and Paul Du Noyer would regale me with tales of those old music-weekly days...where Danny had even done the last ever interview with Michael Jackson, you know.

And then I started listening to Baker's BBC London show. I also loved Oliver, and Oliver loved Danny Baker, so that was it. Sold.

Going To Sea In A Sieve only takes us through the first 25 years of Baker's life, but – as Noel Gallagher would say – what a liiiiiife. Here's Baker's childhood in a council house on the Rotherhithe/Deptford borders, featuring a full cast of even fuller characters. Docker Dad Baker is a particular card, always ducking-and-diving and spotting "skulduggery", but his mother, Nan Baker, is even better. Breaking her hip after falling down the stairs in her 90s because she's had a few, she still insists that she walks the two miles to see her family through the Rotherhithe Tunnel. She uses a buggy full of shopping instead of a zimmer-frame, because she's too bloody proud. Her house also features in a story from Danny's adolescence, involving a girl he's romancing called Lulu. I'll say no more, other than that it made me cringe with terror, and then it made me howl.

Baker busts myths about the mid-century working-class throughout the book, and all the way through  the punk years (reporters were so keen to see young men ranting, he says, that he happily joined in). But bloody hell, you see the rougher side as well. There's the man covered in blood in the back of a car that Baker sees with his dad on the way home from a Millwall game (he discovers later that the torture barn of notorious Kray rivals, The Richardsons, was in one of the railway arches there). There's his classmate who dies falling through the roof of a bombed-out building – although the story that follows about the same child's mohair trousers provides light relief – then come the various tragic fates that befall his old schoolteachers. But these anecdotes are never wrung out like wet rags for sentiment, or introduced to provide hard-nut credentials. They're simply batted to and fro, for entertainment, in ripe Deptford lingo. It's like being with the tearaway cousin of PG Wodehouse down the pub.

And then come the stories about music. Oh Mother! There's so many brilliant stories...about Elton John and Queen prancing around the One Stop, about how Baker did, and didn't, see the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, about how he might, or might not have, met Madonna. And through all of these merry yarns is the sense of how ridiculously revisionist the rewriting of pop history can be. I'd love to see this turned into a film, because our boy Baker tells the truth.

He also knows that he was a lucky bugger back then, and talks about music as if his heart's about to burst. "This is happening now", he says, remembering his first epiphany to The Hollies' (brilliant) Bus Stop. "THIS is happening now." Add that to his straight gentleman's love of flamboyant campery, and I felt a kindred spirit here. He's just like Oliver, really.

Down the pub with you, my Candy Men. The lagers are on me.