"My name is Arthur Smith, unless there's anybody here from Streatham tax office, in which case I'm Daphne Fairfax." For as long as anyone can recall, that's been the opening line of Smith's stand-up routine – an amiable jumble of ad hoc observations and old groaners, delivered with the shambolic air of someone who has wandered onstage by accident. You would think he'd be the last comic to write a decent autobiography. But this is just about the best book I have read about "alternative" comedy – an intimate memoir that doubles as a vivid portrait of an age.
Smith was born in south London in the mid-Fifties, the son of a policeman. Contrary to the comic clichés, he had a happy home life and a good time at school. A bright grammar-school boy, he read comparative literature at the University of East Anglia and then bummed around in an unsuccessful band, an obscure sketch troupe and a moderately successful double-act, before becoming a solo stand-up. Too old to be a punk and too young to be a hippy, at last he found an art form to fit. More than any other comic, he summed up the anarchic spirit of alternative comedy. Smith also wrote wonderful plays for the theatre, radio and TV. Despite his blokeish iconoclasm, he was widely read and highly literate.
Then, a few years ago, he nearly died of pancreatitis, brought on by his drinking. He's frank about the details, but there's no real sense of why he did it. Maybe it was a mystery to him too. He gave up fairly easily, and his writing is even sharper as a result.
The man who emerges isn't all that different from Smith's persona, affable and self-deprecating. Yet the finest aspect of this heartfelt memoir isn't his acute self-portrait, but the pictures of those around him – from friends and family to fellow-comics. His talent has always been far too wayward for TV, but here he has done something much more remarkable: written a showbiz memoir that's worth reading.