|From Pick Of Punch, 1981|
INK IN YOUR VEINS
S0 you want to write your own life story but don't know where to begin? Well, I have published my life story 52 times in various fiction and non‑fiction guises and it would seem that I am the chap to ask. Certainly, since my emergence as a public writer in residence, everybody asks me. My mail bag is full and Doris Black keeps coming in with an armful of her childhood in Islington. Starting is not her problem − finishing is her problem.
"Anna Ford has been offered £60,000 for her life story," is the current rumour. She is in rich company. Although depression, recession, even national and international bankruptcy is rumoured, publishers are waiting to pay fortunes for autobiographies (life stories). Not only to the famous like Ingrid Bergman and Dirk Bogarde and David Niven and those who seem to crop up from all parts of the globe for Parky's show − but also to you. Your life story is as valid as anybody else's; nobody else can write it except you, it is your fingerprint, unique (the only one in existence).
"Why would anybody want to read the life story of Albert Woods or Jane Shatts?" you will ask (using your own name in the question). Well, the reason is that people are nosey. Better than the most exciting made-up fiction they like other people's lives. Vicars, wife‑beaters, royalty and so on. Hence the existence of cheapo newspapers. It is gobbled up day after day − whereas fiction is not. This is because fiction is not true. Very often also you have got to puzzle your brains to know what it means, what it is about, what the author is "getting at". Very often there are hidden meanings in fiction which ruin the enjoyment. For this reason more and more books are being published that deal with ordinary everyday people and events (Dallas).
Do you want to go on or have I made it seem even more complicated (difficult)? Let us suppose that my words have excited you. You now desire and are mad keen to see your fife story and the story of your friends and relations (strange happenings, illnesses, love‑making even, perhaps a broken heart or inability to eat normal food) appear in print! Imagine your picture and your name or pseudonym (pen‑name) on the cover!
"I wonder who wrote this risqué (naughty) story about Bamet?" people will say.
And it will be you (your own town of course, not Barnet always).
All right, then. Out with paper and pen or typewriter. Let me say at this stage that it would save you a lot of hard work if you had a secretary. This is what Barbara Cartland has. Barbara happens to be a personal acquaintance of mine and she will not mind me telling you about her most intimate writing system. She lies on a couch at Hatfield with her eyes closed. After all, she has published 2,567 novels! All about ordinary people doing ordinary workaday things. She has also published her own life story, I Search For Rainbows.
Let us suppose you have the writing materials to hand and are ready to start. Where to begin? This is the great "gobstopper" of all time, isn't it? I am going to help you with a little anecdote of my own. It will show you how to tap your memory bank (and what savings!)
One day I happened to mention to my grown‑up daughters, who were visiting on a wet Sunday afternoon, that I had got frog eyes. I don't‑know how the subject came up.
"What do you mean by that, Grandad?" asked one of my grandchildren, Leslie.
For a moment I was nonplussed (confused). It seemed to me that I have always known that I have frog eyes. But how? It is not the kind of thing one's parents would admit. Somewhere, sometime in my long life, somebody had called me Frog Eyes. Imagine my quandary (predicament − trouble), faced with such a personal question by my small, trusting grandson, not yet 18. And me, not only a writer myself, of some small (!) experience but also well accustomed to remembering even the tiniest fragment of my life and experiences, for this is my very living. And yet, and yet, and yet . . . "How do I know I have frog eyes?" I thought to meself.
For the present I passed the matter off. Fortunately, close friends of my own arrived to see me with a few bottles, not knowing I had family present. From being Dad and Grandad I was soon faceting (changing faces) like a diamond. This can be quite embarrassing of course. I heard one of my friends, himself a writer, telling my youngest daughter, not yet 42, how I had brought "another woman" into the house when she was a child. Of course, things like this are not uncommon and Jilly was not amazed or anything. But then I heard him telling her about the sleeping rota I got both parties to sign so as to avoid fighting over me. He had, of course, become confused with one of my fictionalised life stories. Then I accidentally said fuck − this you must avoid if you want your stuff to appear in W. H. Smiths.
Amid the fracas (set‑to) I suddenly remembered who first called me Frog Eyes. I don't know whether you know an actor on television called Dennis Waterman? Well, it was not him. It was a chap who resembles the part that Dennis often plays of a kind of laid‑back (relaxed) working class yobbo with a heart of gold. In other words I had got my "missing Iink".
"Cocker!" I suddenly said. Of course, everybody wanted to know the details once I had reminded them of what I had forgotten (so to speak). What I had forgotten in fact − and this will give you heart when it comes to rattling off your own magnum opus (big number) − was almost the whole of the 1950s. My Lost Decade! Yes, this is a famous piece of writing by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American drunk. He also wrote, I believe, The Lost Weekend. Or was that Trevor Howard? Now here was me, not a drinker at all by writers' standards, forgetting a whole eight to ten year period in my life. What gold! I could hardly wait to get down to it, as we writers say.
Cocker was an important part of my 1950s. He was the doorman at the Studio Club in Piccadilly where we people from the arts gathered. Well, that was the intention of Augustus John (a painter) when he opened it, but by 1955 the membership covered a broader spectrum (area). For instance there was a hundred‑year‑old artist Monty Smythe, whom we used to conduct visitors round, and there was Daphne, a secretary at ITN, the famous television news company (yes, even then). Cocker was the life and soul of the party, as you can imagine. He it was who called me Frog Eyes.
"Here, give us your gun, old Frog Eyes!" he cried, one memorable night. You will be amazed to know that I carried a gun in those days. I am amazed. Everything comes flooding back now. What a treasure trove of writing material. You will find the same I am sure; locked away perhaps in an attic or some careless fragment of small talk. Charles Dickens is said to have got his idea for Hard Times from a square of newsprint hanging from a nail in a friend's lavatory.
My gun, you will be relieved to know, was made of plastic.
"Don't ma'er!" cried Cocker, who could not pronounce his t's or th's, being "of the people". "Fink wha' happens, Frog Eyes. You are driving up froo Hendon and meet the old Bill. Whass your car number, sir? You don't know. Search! Inside wiv him!"
That lost decade was a dangerous time for anybody fresh from Welwyn Garden City (where Flora Robson and Chris Barber came from, incidentally). Besides artists at the Studio Club there was a right "racy" crowd and one needed self‑protection. We had three bankrupts! The "romantic encounters" that went on there in the Fifties were prodigious (many). For a time I was "on the run", so to speak, from a chap who used to go out with a young lady I was slightly friendly with. He was a brute and had made her pregnant and gone back to his sister. One night she had a miscarriage at the Odeon in Fulham Road, just in front of Pan Books. Afterwards I took her for coffee at the West London Air Terminal. She was a gorgeous blonde and very intelligent, having got a librarian's diploma. We had a lot in common.
"Your frog‑eyed chick's not 'ere yet!" Cocker would cry, welcoming members in his warm personal way.
In brief then, before committing those "hallowed" memories to parchment, let me say this. Keep it clean. Everything doubtful in an autobiography must happen to somebody else. There are people like Cocker in most people's lives, full of earthy wisdom (by the way, he said frog eyes were due to the thyroid gland). Try to remember your own Cockers. You will not recall the ecstatic or traumatic events of the past by sitting down as that great drunk Ernest Hemingway used to do at the Café des Lilos I think it is. Remembering comes out of getting into a fracas and things like that.
Meanwhile, bonne chance (good luck).