Faber & Faber, £12.99, 273pp £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
I Was Douglas Adams's Flatmate, By Andrew McGibbon
Friday 25 February 2011
Andrew McGibbon currently makes a living as a writer and producer of broadcast comedy. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, he played drums in Morrissey's backing band. This brush with celebrity became the basis of a radio programme, which grew into a Radio 4 series – and which has now resulted in this odd collection of interviews with people who were once on first-name terms with the famous. "One person's unique encounter with a legend, by way of factotemry [or] flatmatery," McGibbon explains, creates "an unusual and very personal insight into the famous one, highlighting the ordinary... things about them or their behaviour that demythologise them." The dozen legends are almost all from a different era of fame, when celebrities were known for something other than celebrity itself. But besides that distinction, they're a bafflingly eclectic bunch.
There are, surely, few other unified lists of this length that would include Ernest Hemingway, Tina Turner, Moazzam Begg and Les Dawson. The title chapter features the testimony of Douglas Adams's Cambridge friend and fellow-writer Jon Canter, who lived with Adams in the Holloway flat where he wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. His famous flatmate, Canter reveals, was six-foot-five, took very long baths and spent two days distraught after hearing of John Lennon's death: he'd met all the other Beatles, and now he'd never have the opportunity to complete the set.
We learn from Annie Ross, a singer who once understudied for Billie Holiday, that "Lady Day" pinched a pocketful of gold trinkets from a jeweller on the Champs Elysées. Hemingway's secretary, Valerie Danby-Smith, relates how she married Papa's cross-dressing son. Johnny Cash's tailor, Manuel Cuevas, says it was he that advised the singer to dress in black.
Yet much of the book feels lacking in intimate anecdotes. Many interviewees can only speculate about their acquaintances. The chapter narrated by Will Carling's osteopath rarely mentions the former England rugby captain, although it does provide a potted history of sports medicine.
This makes McGibbon's selection desperately uneven. Sam Peckinpah's "Girl Friday", Katy Haber, had a lengthy, deep and complex relationship with the wild director. But Nick Potter (the osteopath) seems merely to have cured Carling of an ache in his shoulder. And there's one especially awkward guest at this fantasy dinner party: Begg, the Guantanamo detainee, as described by his celebrated lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. Fascinating, certainly, but sandwiched between Peckinpah and Tina Turner?
There's little in the way of theory as to how fame affects the famous or their friends. It's interesting, if not surprising, that many aspired to the same variety of greatness as their well-known chums: the trumpet-playing hi-fi salesman who was Chet Baker's tour manager; the journalist who did Hemingway's filing. There may be a revealing volume to be written about the friends and colleagues of the famous. This isn't quite it. McGibbon has produced, instead, a bizarrely versatile toilet book. And in that capacity, at least, it ought to provide any visitor to the bathroom – be they rugby fans, jazz enthusiasts or comedy nerds – with some pleasant distraction.
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