Sparkling journalism and all that jazz

Benny Green: words and music by Dominic Green (London House, £16.99)
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The Independent Culture

Unusually for a film critic, Benny Green has actually urinated over a cinema audience. Delivering his review to Punch, the magazine on which I worked, he once told me how his mother coped with him when as a child he was taken short in the balcony of the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road. She would lift him up so that he could let rip over the edge.

"The drunks in the seats down below would just think the roof was letting in the rain," explained Benny, handing over his wonderful though wonkily typed copy, in which he was again weeing from a great height - this time on the week's celluloid travesties.

The joy of his reviews was the way in which his prose rapidly moved from the movie towards richer pastures. "I like the way Benny managed to get in a mention of the actual film," remarked the envious books editor.

Benny's heart was not in films, since this involved going to the cinema. That in turn involved travelling, of which he had had his fill as a jobbing musician. Thanks to his untamed Cockney accent, he even disliked telephoning the cinemas to find out programme times. "They think I'm a robber finding out when there will be cash in the till," he told me sadly as I made the call for him.

He preferred his stint as Punch television critic, a sedentary duty he carried out in the intervals between his regular Radio 2 broadcasts on the "Art of the Songwriter", his television shows about London and his columns for publications as diverse as Ideal Home and The Mirror. He wrote books about sport, and novels about struggling jazz musicians. For four decades, he banged out 1,500 words a day, all of them fresh and lively.

A few of us on the magazine were educated by the University of Life; Benny owed his learning to the College of Coach. An autodidact's autodidact, he first taught himself to play the saxophone and then, in long hours on the road, he taught himself about literature by reading and annotating the classic novels.

As his son Dominic points out in this biographical portrait, Benny's background was like that of another self-taught scribe, HG Wells (obviously, the parallel breaks down: Wells never played baritone sax with Ronnie Scott). Like George Melly and Wally Fawkes (the cartoonist "Trog"), he was part of that talented generation that came up through the jazz boom and switched to a slightly more respectable career in journalism.

His talents in jazz and writing came together when he produced - oddly enough, with few digressions - the sleeve notes for Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Since he was launching the greatest album by the greatest jazz trumpeter, it was rather like God ringing up to say: "I'm just launching this book called the Bible: would you like to write the introduction?"

Having interviewed Benny for The Independent shortly before his death, I was aware how much his schooling had been interrupted by the Blitz, being evacuated and his problems with Marylebone Grammar, whose English teacher told Benny that he was "fit only to be a barrow boy". This reproof was administered after Benny had declared that Cleopatra could not have been a virgin since she had, according to Bernard Shaw, a child by Julius Caesar. Young Green grew up to write a book and a musical about Shaw, but failed completely as a barrow person.

His childhood deprivations are powerfully described in this book, in which the rich quotations from Benny's typewriter more than compensate for the occasional patch of uncertain prose from Dominic's word processor. The Green home, a short piddle away from Tottenham Court Road, had at first no hot water, nor even a proper bedroom for its only child (Benny slept on a kind of curtained shelf).

His mother worked for a pittance, much of which was gambled away by her husband. But Green Senior was a sax player of sorts, which was, like the ancestral dinner jacket he handed down for professional gigs, a great inheritance.

And Mrs Green, as I said, used to take Benny to the cinema.

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