Malcolm Hardee 10 years gone.

Malcolm Hardee 10 years gone. This is what I wrote about him in my memoir

anything you do not understand please regard as significant (Arnold Brown)

 

…..But the most striking example of the overlapping of venue and person was to be found down the rough end of Greenwich, the natural habitat of one of the most remarkable people I ever met.

 

The ironically-named Tunnel Palladium was situated in the Mitre pub at the southern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel, isolated in wasteland and flanked by a gas-holder. The Sunday shows were run and compèred by small-time legend, Malcolm Hardee, whom I had come across in Edinburgh when he was living in a tent and performing with The Greatest Show on Legs – an amateurish, knockabout outfit whose don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and surreal visuals were a refreshing antidote to some of the more austere and earnest acts on display at the Festival. That was the year when, in a dispute with the American comic Eric Bogossian, he had retaliated by driving naked through Bogossian’s show on a fork-lift truck trailing his audience behind him.

 

Malcolm, who resembled a debauched Eric Morecambe, was a one-man affront to sobriety, cleanliness and good order. He had been a pupil at Colfe’s Grammar School, a nearby rival of Roan, my old school in Greenwich, but had been expelled for blowing up the school organ. His true alma mater was Exeter prison where he spent several years at her Majesty’s pleasure, though it is hard to imagine anything Malcolm did that might have given the queen pleasure. His career as a car-thief and drug-dealer having stalled, he decided to go into showbiz with his friend, Martin Soan, who had created a pornographic Punch and Judy show to perform around South West England. This eventually became ‘the Legs,’ who scandalised the nation (and several others) with their nude cha cha cha balloon dance.

 

Phil and I played the opening night at the Tunnel, which, under Malcolm’s influence, became the arena where London’s top hecklers gathered every Sunday to slaughter open spots and established acts alike. Some punters even met up beforehand in a kind of heckling seminar and one night, when I was performing solo, a voice in the dark interrupted me with a Latin phrase that turned out to mean ‘show us your tits.’* The word ‘notorious’ soon attached itself to the Tunnel which is now remembered as Alternative Comedy’s equivalent to the previous generation’s Glasgow Empire – a place for confrontation, raucousness, multiple comedy pile-ups and deaths. It was not uncommon for the acts to be booed off with such efficiency that the whole show was over in twenty minutes, an occasion that was greeted by the regulars as a great success. Malcolm, instinctively anti-authoritarian from his thick black glasses, down his naked hairy body, to his piss-stained odd socks, liked to encourage the mayhem by the frequent exhibition of his titanic testicles, which he advertised as ‘the second biggest in the country – after Jenny Agutter’s father.’ (Apparently, they had once compared notes). If the mood took him he would urinate over the front row and, such was his charisma, the victims cheered rather than remonstrated.

 

 

* papillas tui nobis ostende.

 

 

The Tunnel’s uproarious air of unpredictability was encouraged by what seemed like a deranged booking policy. Possessing a natural affinity with the under-rehearsed shambles, Malcolm showcased acts others feared to; the sensational Chris Lynham who ended his set by removing his clothes, lighting a firework he wedged up his arse* and singing ‘There’s no business like show business;’ a tap dancing Swede (badly let down by the carpetted stage); Madame Poulet and her Singing Chickens (don’t ask); the Ice Man, whose whole act consisted of increasingly frantic attempts to melt a large block of ice; Sylvie Bottle-Knocker a busty lady able to open a bottle of beer using only her breasts and, once only, a transvestite dressed as Myra Hindley, who told the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Malcolm’s compèring style was fair but ruthless. He would warn the crowd, ‘The next act is liable to be shit,’ but then praise them if they entertained. If a performer has bombed badly there is always a laugh available to the MC afterwards and Malcolm would take it with glee. Remembering my own first try-out, I preferred not to compound the comic’s misery when I compered, but I hinted at their failure with a line borrowed from the novelist Anthony Powell; ‘Well, I think the best we can say about him is that he is a rich testimony to the infinite diversity of the human personality.’

 

Every week at the Tunnel Palladium, and then at its successor Up The Creek, the audience chanted joyfully along with Malcolm’s handful of old one-liners and clapped indulgently when he set off on his inevitable rambling harmonica solos. He had already created the phrases which defined him – where other people said ‘Hello’ or ‘Goodbye’, Malcolm dispensed a loud ‘Oy Oy!’ His philosophy of life was encapsulated in his other 2 catchphrases – ‘Knob out!’ and ‘Fuck it!’ both of which he enacted with little encouragement. His reckless appetite for adventure, his dislike of being on his own and his genetically programmed rejection of the sensible course of action meant that every comic had a Malcolm story. If Tony Allen was the theory of anarchic comedy, then Malcolm was its cock-eyed embodiment.

 

** Malcolm tried this trick himself and ended in hospital with a singed anus.

 

 

UPCOMING GIG

10 Years On: The Malcolm Show – Feb 2nd 2015 – Up the Creek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 28 Two deaths, a proposal and a birthday.

 

If, in some future time, the River Thames is drained, there will be a rich and fascinating haul of items revealed on the riverbed. Among the Roman coins, medieval weapons, unexploded bombs, bones and punctured yoghurt pots, there will be a large pair of thick black-rimmed glasses. Whoever finds them will not know that they once clung to the ears of Malcolm Hardee, who toppled into the river early one pissed, frozen morning and was pulled out 36 hours later by police frogmen, still clutching his final bottle of beer. It seems that our bet as to which of us would die first had been won. No doubt the cheque is in the post.

 

When the news broke that Malcolm had drowned, comedians and citizens of Greenwich immediately began to congregate at the last venue he ran, the aptly named Wibbley Wobbley, the pub/ boat moored on Surrey quays in which I had invested before, astonishingly, Malcolm paid me back (no profit obviously). People stood around in shocked clumps although, given his reckless nature and his known penchant for messing about on the river, no-one could really be surprised at what had happened. Most of those present had spent an afternoon or two drinking heavily with him on his boat, spluttering and chuntering uncertainly downriver to the Thames barrier at Woolwich (useless, according to Malcolm). I had put my time in on board this vessel, which seemed to me hardly more than a motorized bath tub although, following the benefit he had conned me into, it had been upgraded to motorized kitchen, Malcolm’s longest affair was with the River and his extinction in its murky green arms was tragic but entirely appropriate. His father had been a Thames lighterman who, Malcolm had boasted proudly, towed the Cutty Sark into dry dock. Malcolm lived on a boat across from the Wibbly Wobbly and had fallen in while rowing between the two – standing up as he rowed because that’s what men of the river did. It was not the first time he had tumbled into the water, though it was, of course and alas, the last.

 

Mister Hardee, as he liked to call himself, had been at the Comedy Store at the beginning and, in the Tunnel Palladium, he founded, and personified, a club that was the most distinctive of all the early London comedy venues. He booked, managed, and slept with acts that others wouldn’t, was a stalwart of the Glastonbury and Edinburgh festivals as well as a consistent disappointment to the Police, the Inland Revenue and the big-money agencies who had moved into comedy. He represented the anarchic, ramshackle early days of the circuit when there was little cash but a wealth of vitality, creativity and laughable experimentation. Erica Jong remarked recently that the backlash against feminism has lasted far longer than feminism itself and I feel the same about alternative comedy, whatever it was. The scene now is slicker, more professional and less politicized – you can see material which would have been deemed reprehensible in the mid-eighties but is accepted because it comes in a sharp suit and hides behind a half-baked notion of irony. * This has ushered in a revival of misogyny masquerading as exprimentation among male comedians that disappoints we old lefties. Och, look at me on my prehistoric high horse

 

It was twenty-five years since the birth of ‘alternative cabaret’ and while the name was long gone, the circuit it gave birth to thrives all over Britain and in numerous foreign outposts. You can now study ‘the theory and practice of stand-up comedy’ as part of your drama degree at the University of Kent.** It is, arguably, London, not New York or LA, that is the funniest city in the English-speaking world although the big money is over there. Comedians in Britain have infiltrated all aspects of the media – as actors, TV presenters, radio stars, novelists, playwrights, filmmakers and internet-ticklers, while some – like Dave Gorman and double-act Noble and Silver – are closer to conceptual art than comedy

 

Malcolm, who had lived his life as an undeclared work of conceptual art, provided, as his final scenario, the conditions for the perfect funeral and Alex, his younger brother, paid him the compliment of creating it. Alex works in the popular music business now but I had come across him when he put on some comedy gigs in Edinburgh one year. At the one I played, in a boozer for the depraved and degraded, a man poured a pint of his piss over me during my set – which was a kind of inversion of Alex’s brother’s trick. The ‘heckler’ explained to me that he had done it because he liked my routine, which made me wonder how he would have reacted if he had hated it.

 

In keeping with the grandeur of the church to which it was heading, Malcolm’s funeral cortège was formed of a sumptuous line of shiny old black cars and, in keeping with the body it was transporting, the flowers bedecking the hearse spelt out, ‘Oy Oy,’ Knob out’ and ‘Fuck it.’ This novelty vehicle led the procession slowly past the Wibbly Wobbly, the Cutty Sark (soon to go up in flames itself), past Up The Creek – where the pavement was lined with respectful locals – and round the corner to Saint Alfeges Church, where hundreds more mourners were waiting. He was never famous himself, but Malcolm was known to many who are. Among the congregation joining his family in Saint Alfeges were enough well-known comics that if a bomb had exploded, all TV panel games and talking heads/clip shows would have been postponed for months to come. And there were young comics, ex-comics, failed comics, soon-to-be comics, strippers, musicians, techies, betting shop boys, a range of Malcolm;s lovers and the assembled demi-monde of all Greenwich, overflowing from the church into the courtyard outside. People who had not met for years shook hands and embraced. The atmosphere in the stern dome was charged with emotion and anticipation of whatever was about to happen – maybe, in his greatest stunt yet, the lid would fall from the coffin and Malcolm would sit up, adjust his glasses and say, ‘Oy oy!. What’s all the fuss about?’

 

* Here is a line of Jimmy Carr’s: ‘The male gypsy moth can spell the female gypsy moth at up to seven miles. And that’s still true if you remove the word ‘moth.’’

 

** A course taught by Oliver Double – and rightly so.

 

Ever alert to the increased comic possibilities offered by a formal setting, Malcolm had married the redoubtable and fabulous Jane at Saint Alfeges on April Fools day ten years earlier. He had asked me to read something from the Bible.

‘All right, which bit? ‘

‘Oh, you choose – anything as long as it’s from the Bible.’

I had selected a fire-and-brimstone passage from the Old Testament raging against the misuse of one’s rod, an invocation I suspect he ignored. That ceremony was recalled now as his funeral got underway and Martin Soan, his old partner in the Greatest Show on Legs, recited Malcolm’s traditional opening line, tailored to whichever venue he was playing, and blatantly stolen from Ian MacPherson; “They say you only play Saint Alfeges twice in your life once on the way up and once on the way down. Great to be back.”

 

The coffin, an L-plate fixed to its front, was carried in by six, soberly attired pall-bearers, to the accompaniment of the cheesy balloon-dance cha cha cha, and placed gently on a platform in front of the altar. The vicar leading the service introduced the sweetly naïve hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful,’‘because Malcolm was bright and he was beautiful.’ The organ struck up and the singing was loud for all the verses. As co-host, the secular compère, I stepped up alongside the coffin:

“The Lord God, if you do exist, you did indeed make the little flowers that open, you did make the little birds that sing…and then you had a couple of pints and you made Malcolm Hardee.

‘Everything about Malcolm, apart from his stand-up material, was original. He was the one-offs one-off.’

‘But before we start, let’s release a little tension and give a big round of applause to one of the most remarkable people any of us….” but I didn’t finish the sentence because everyone had already started clapping.

 

Other than in the artificial glare of industry dos, comedians very rarely come together in large numbers but here, in this sublimely incongruous setting, audibly united in our good-bye to one man, there was a feeling of communality, a shared comprehension of the deprivations and glories of the stand-up life and this most colourful of its exponents. All those who could, rose to their feet, cheering and whistling in a heart-stopping ovation. The first among us to die – and what a death. He was a stand-up comic. I am a stand-up comic. And so are you, my friend. Who would not wish to be such a creature?

Eventually the applause subsided and the funniest, and the most moving gig I ever attended or ever played, continued with brilliant speeches, poignant musical interludes and outrageous spontaneities until, finally, the coffin was borne from the church by the pall-bearers, trying hard not to laugh as Elvis Presley’s Return to Sender played Malcolm Hardee out of the church and on to the crematorium.

 

Beth, who supported me most beautifully that day, observed that I had been born to play this funeral. Malcolm and I were of a similar age and had been around comedy for the same amount of time. Like him, I was a South London grammar school boy who had spent too many nights marauding around the pubs and streets of Greenwich; I had performed at most of the sundry venues Malcolm opened, written a short story ( ‘The Man With two Penis’’) in the book he had compiled called Sit-Down Comedy, and he and I had frequently participated in each other’s Fringe escapades – it was only when his autobiography was published that I had learned he had, as a matter of course, rung and complained to the police at the start of all my tours of the Royal Mile. Malcolm was the supreme Mister Greenwich but his funeral cortège had passed several milestones in my own early life. Surrey Quays is where the insurmountable fences (even by Raymond) of Surrey docks once stood – I had grown up next to them fighting in the bombsite wars. A few years later, as a gauche, carbuncular schoolboy, I sat in Saint Alfeges church looking in awe at the girls across the aisle and, as a young man, I had made my first, failed bid for stardom at the Cutty Sark boat with Gary, Dennis and hot Miriâme from France. It was all a long time ago. Or a blink of the eye. So passes life, alas how swift. It’s a game-and-a half where you are Ron, it’s a game-and-a half where we all are Brian.

 

That it was the end of an era in comedy, or at least in the lives of a bunch of comics, seemed to be confirmed by another death a year after Malcolm’s epic departure. Brilliant, radical, erudite, principled and less starry than it is possible to imagine a gifted, famous person could be, Linda Smith’s premature death at 48 was more shocking than Malcolm’s – which had been on the cards ever since he had dangled from a railway bridge, aged nine. Where Malcolm was an example of what Tom Elsasser had called me at UEA, an ‘eventist’, Linda was a sculptress in hilarious words and a radical thinker who had started her career playing Miners Welfare Clubs during the strike of 84/85. I had met her many times on the comedy circuit, laughed with her on sundry radio shows, introduced her in the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition and on TV in First Exposure. As a political female stand-up there was no-one to compare with her – and there still isn’t.

 

Reminiscences of my first Edinburgh Fringe

 

Reminiscences of my first Edinburgh Fringe  (extracted, and slightly amended, from my memoir ‘My Name is Daphne Fairfax’  

 In late summer it is the only thing to do. For two of the past 30 years I have missed it and both times I felt like all my friends were having a terrific get-together while I had stupidly chosen to stay home and sulk. The Edinburgh Festival is one of the world’s great parties, an orgy of self-expression that encourages experimentation and welcomes the amateur performer as well as the professional. It has provided a ravishing playground for my own imagination and the things I have done in my career of which I am most proud all started, in one way or another, in this stern, dramatic, unique city in the month of August where the streets are alive with young wannabes chanting the performers mantra:

I’ll get drunk

I’ll get laid

I’ll get spotted

I’ll get paid

 

My adulthood has been measured out in Edinburgh Fringes and if the event did not exist I would have had a different life. Whenever, for some reason (like writing an autobiography), I wish to identify what year something happened, my first reference point is the roster of stuff that lodges in my head recording, in roughly chronological order, every show I  have done in Edinburgh. Not every show you understand. Not all the one-off cabaret gigs, the guided walking tours, or the cameo appearances in odd plays, the benefits, the ‘best-of-the-fest’s, the processions, the sideshows, the radio spots, the pod casts, the press stunts, the state-of-comedy seminars, the TV programmes, the hospital charity gigs; not all of them – no, I mean the ones that inspired me to go up to the festival in the first place, the shows which I (or some sort of we) had prepared, budgeted for and advertised.

 

All those summers lay before me when we arrived in1977, buoyant and optimistic with our revamped version of the show we had performed at college, SwingalongaDante, subtitled, ‘…dahlings, it’s the Divine Comedy.’  We drove up from Norwich in a grubby yellow van stuffed with costumes, props, posters, programmes and hope. If we sold 25 tickets a night we would break even; if the audience numbered 50 or more we would make a small profit. That must be possible – after all, we had some great quotes from the Eastern Daily Press and the Primary School which served as our venue was famous for a wee pupil called Sean Connery. I spent 3 days failing to do as little as possible in the frenetic preparations for our opening, which first required us to convert the school hall into a theatre. The other members of the team were aware by now that I had a total lack of practical skills but I joined in grumpily sticking up posters, hustling, begging, giving out fliers, borrowing coat-hangers – all the palava of ‘let’s do a show right here in the barn.’

 

On the Sunday morning before our Monday night première, exhausted and, in my case, hungover, we took part in the traditional opening parade in which Adam had secured us a place. Clutching bags stuffed with costumes, we walked to the gathering point along a line of waiting lorries, until we located the spot reserved for us where it was revealed that, unlike all the other local businesses and fringe groups on the parade, we did not have a lorry and would be obliged to proceed on foot between floats at street level – the poor bloody infantry among the divisions of rolling tanks.

 

The float in front was occupied by members of the Cambridge Footlights Revue, who easily found room on their commodious lorry for our bags and shouted down encouragement. The Footlights had history, experience and a big oily machine behind them; they had already been on tour with their show, had a large venue, a guaranteed audience and an air of self-confidence that we, mooching around the gutter in our cheap wigs, could not match. Meeting them here, I felt a little of my dad’s humility in the presence of members of the establishment – the officer class. These young men with their pedigree and superior A-levels were probably much funnier and much cleverer than us.

 

Miind you they had no Babs and Max who gathered the handouts and bravely strapped themselves into their uniform of fishnet tights and high heels, while we boys pinned up our baggy leopard-skin underpants. These ‘nappies,’ worn with white shirts and unconvincing false moustaches, constituted the costume of the ‘Canaletteloni* Brothers, a frenetic bunch of acrobats – all called Luigi Cannalleteloni –  whose enthusiasm, since none of us were acrobats, outstripped any genuine tumbling skills. To a furious piano accompaniment, we would run on, manically shouting in mock Italian, and commence banging each other’s heads with tin trays, leaping through hoops and performing extravagant forward-rolls. Adam would drag up a member of the audience to stand on his shoulders, while in one trick I launched myself dangerously over Adam and Phil to crash to the stage behind them. Wagons roll. We canellettoloni-ed along Princes Street to cheering crowds, convinced we would draw enough attention to sell dozens of tickets.

 

For our début public performance I treated myself to some clean socks.  My brother and his girlfriend, with whom I was staying in Edinburgh, arrived twenty minutes early with a friend, bought a programme, and took their places, while Rick, ‘Banana Fingers,’ tinkled on the piano. Then my mate Lindsay showed up. We waited nervously in the school toilets that were now our dressing room. After half-an-hour it was apparent that no-one else was coming. Our audience numbered 4 people, all of whom we knew.

 

Fucking hell, what a bummer. We felt utterly dejected. What had been the point of the posters, the fliers, the parade? We had been wasting our time and I, at that point, would happily have packed my bags and gone to London – Babs, I think, may have felt the same. But Adam and the others were not going to give up so easily. I was out-voted. We would continue the run, and what’s more, we would not cancel this show. Twenty minutes later, during our opening salvo of audience participation, anyone entering the  School hall would have seen the cast and the entire audience standing on stage swinging-along-a-Dante to a hundred empty seats.

 

* NB The number of n’s, l’s and t’ s in ‘Canneletteloni’ has never been agreed.

 

In the next few years our troupe became known, above all, for our enthusiasm and energy, both onstage and off. Galvanised again by Adam, the following day, and every subsequent day of the festival, we returned to the streets of Edinburgh, singing and dancing outside the Fringe box office, cajoling passers-by, button-holing journalists, and doing anything we could think of, however desperate or humiliating, that might increase our ticket sales. By the Thursday the audience at last outnumbered the cast and, on Friday, we hit double figures for the first time. Things were improving but I remained disconsolate – I estimated we were each putting in about six hours work for every 50p ticket sold – but at least performing the show was becoming less embarrassing and the few people who came seemed to be enjoying themselves. Whenever we could we did a spot at the Fringe Club on the Royal Mile, where performers gathered after their shows to compare notes, watch the cabaret, dance, get drunk and sleep with each other. Nowadays there are too many shows at the festival for there to be one central performers’ bar, which is a shame because it was a fantastic place to end your evening, equalled in bibulous exuberance only by the bar at the Gilded Balloon a decade later.

 

We took time off only to attend other comedies which, I noted, were all significantly shorter than our own two hours of fun. The Footlights boys were good, but no funnier than us, while the Lancaster University Revue, presenting Hayley’s Vomit were definitely worse. Chris Langham’s show was the most hilarious and featured the funniest thing I saw that year – Jim Broadbent doing his ‘jazz dancing.’ Langham cut a dashing figure with his famous girlfriend and his reputation as a TV writer. I heard with amazement how someone would ring him up and offer him £20 quid to write a joke! ‘That must be good,’ I thought.

 

Our audience numbers continued to grow, as did the number of pints I consumed at the Fringe Club after the show. During one performance in the school hall I was afforded a foreglimpse of the type of confrontation that awaited me on countless nights to come when a drunk persistently interrupted my Max Miller routine. I did not then have the resources to deal with hecklers but at this, my first public barracking, it did not matter because one of our new friends in the Footlights, who was sitting in front of the drunk, turned, and inviting him to ‘Shut up, you Scottish cunt!’ punched him in the face A small scuffle petered out as the lights came on and the rueful heckler left, along with 12 others, thus halving our audience. In the last week we received a good review in the Scotsman – no doubt it would have had 5 stars if reviews had been graded then. Or perhaps 4 stars since there was one caveat among the heavenly inches of praise. My cricket strip, a succès d’estime in Norwich, was declared, ‘unfunny in the extreme.’

 

On the final night of our run, hoorah, we sold out to a raucous crowd who laughed and clapped. Afterwards, in spirits as high as Arthur’s Seat, I capped the evening by finally copping off with a woman who, I was to discover, became a nun soon after.  Edinburgh had supplied a mixture of emotions, the extreme contours of the experience fitting perfectly the geography of the city itself, but when it was all over the only thing I wanted to do was to repair to my new pad in London and lie down. I had gone to the festival thinking of it as a fun holiday which might pay for itself, a kind of full stop to my university career; I had not bargained for the sheer hard work it entailed. There were a lot of funny, ambitious people around in Edinburgh, funnier and more ambitious than I. We had worked our tits off, but nothing had  come of it and I was more in debt than ever. I didn’t expect to return to Edinburgh. However, when I recounted our adventures to my mate Dave in a London pub and he asked, ‘Will you ever go on stage again?’ I could not `bring myself to say ‘no.’ And I guess the only time I ever will say no to that question will be during the endgame of my death.

 

Unless, of course, I play out the secret fantasynightmare of every comic, and die on stage.

 

Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Vol. 2)

Edinburgh 2014

15th Aug  – 24th Aug

Forth – Pleasance Courtyard

2pm – Tickets & Info

 

 

 

 

10 Years Ago…

Balance March 2012

It was my first time in Geneva, that grand old town on the lake, but I cannot say I was enjoying myself; propped up on 3 pillows, I lay in my hotel room, desperately trying to ignore the pain in my stomach and the thought that this was going to be my last night alive.

Three months earlier I had spent 12 days in hospital – the first 3 in Intensive Care – with pancreatitis, or rather, to give it its full title, severe acute necrotizing pancreatitis. “You’re not out of the woods yet,” the doctors had said when I was discharged, and advised me to rest a while – another attack could prove fatal. I spent weeks living gently – but, as I grew stronger, began to feel the desire to return to work, particularly to do the Radio 4 programme about France I had been looking forward to so much. The Vosges, I want to go to the Vosges…

From the moment Sara-Jane, the producer, and I touched down in Annency I knew I was ill again.  Stomach cramps crushed my appetite, I felt enfeebled and my urine was the colour of a full-bodied Rioja. Our visits to the former residences of Rousseau and Voltaire were an endurance test. I took no pleasure in the mountains or the lakes and nearly vomited during the section about the strong local cheese. However I was determined to make it through the recording so that I might not end up in a hospital (or graveyard) in a foreign land.

I made frantic phone calls to my doctor brother, Richard, in search of medical advice. The three days became an ordeal – for Sara-Jane as much as me. Having your presenter die on duty abroad would look bad when she next had to fill in a risk assessment form. She is my friend; she fretted. On the last night we crossed the border into Switzerland where I sat in the hotel writhing and trying to will a postponement of the inevitable collapse – at least until after I had flown back to London. This agony was clearly the sequel to the pancreatitis I had been warned about and, like all sequels – except for The Godfather of course – it was worse than the original.

I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I was near their dangerous centre.

At 3am I went into a coma and died…… well no, obviously, I survived, but I was admitted straight to hospital once I had dragged myself home and was not finally discharged until a month later.

Why do I tell you this? Well, because it happened ten years ago and I want to remind myself on its anniversary that I survived, so that I might enjoy more fully the days I live in now. And to suggest to you that, sometimes, things do get better and that you should cherish the life that you have.

A couple of years ago I returned to Geneva and sat overlooking the water thinking “Phew!”

Blog about my Dad – Syd in Venice

I think the most successful sections of my autobiography, My Name is Daphne Fairfax were those featuring my father – the letter of praise for Daphne I most cherished ended, “and thank you, above all, for introducing me to Syd.”

At the age of 70, prompted by my brother Richard, Syd spent several months writing his ‘memoirs’ (he laughed at the pretentiousness of the word) in his careful, copperplate writing. The prose is spare, occasionally ungrammatical and avoids introspection or rhetorical flourish, but you can feel the underlying turbulences

There are tales in Syd’s reminiscences, especially those from his war years, which, though narrated in a few sentences or a couple of sparse paragraphs, have a kind of epic quality, stories whose details and emotions I have tried to construct in my own mind. Of these, perhaps the most affecting comes when he is still a soldier, though now in the post-war turmoil of Yugoslavia:

To my delight, I was granted a week’s leave in Venice. I went with a tough, North country lad whose main interest was booze, but I wasn’t to spend any time with him. We were accommodated in the best hotel in Venice, called the Excelsior, which stood on the Lido. It was luxurious but I wasn’t to take much advantage of it.

Gosh, why not? I am hooked. Surely, after all those cramped shared quarters, filthy desert toilets, foreign prisons and army camps, he was exhilarated at the prospect of clean sheets, warm baths and uxorious service? It will be 30 years before he ever stays anywhere as grand as the Excelsior.

It had its own sandy beach and once I’d settled in I went for a swim. The water was beautifully warm. I swam out and climbed up onto a small jetty in order to have a dive. Laying sunning herself there was a girl in a white bikini, and she was to be the reason that I spent so little time in the hotel.

Ah hah, I see….  The bikini, then a fashionable and daring new garment in the wardrobe of young women, was named – obscenely you might say – after the Pacific Island that had been nuked in the recent atomic tests, and this particular white two piece, and more particularly the eager tanned body that filled it, were naturally of more interest to Syd than any bedding, however sumptuous…

As I recall, I think her name was Santa Maria Della Costello but I think that is the name of a Church. Anyway, I called her Maria. She told me that she had lost both of her parents in a bombing raid in Milan. She showed me all the delights of Venice: St Mark’s Cathedral, the marble-paved Piazza San Marco, The Bridge of Sighs, the island of Torcello, where women were sewing Venetian lace, which we went to on a gondola.

Although her English was non-existent and my Italian was about the same we managed to communicate remarkably well and we were both sorry when my week ran out. On departure I offered her money, but she refused the offer. I think I insulted her because she thought I was paying for her services. She later tried to get to see me in Pola but was stopped at the border crossing. I never saw her again.

However many stories end with it (perhaps in some way because they all do), ‘I never saw her again’, is a phrase that is always loaded with poignancy. Forty years after his Venetian encounter I rang Syd from the beach opposite the Excelsior Hotel and claimed I could see an old lady in a white bikini. He laughed but I knew he had always wondered what had become of that sad woman, poor beautiful desperate Maria, newly orphaned and homeless, hopelessly trying to bluff her way past the guards, praying she might be rescued from her despair again by the handsome, kind, sexy, English soldier…

I never saw her again.