At the start of this book, Martin Kelner sums up his theme in an old joke about a man in a pub moaning about his job, sweeping up behind the elephant in the circus. Due to the smell of elephant shit, he can't make friends or get dates. "Why not quit?" the barman asks. "What," says the man, "and leave show business?"
Countless people spend their working lives behind the elephant, waiting for fame and glory, or at least a few hours round the front. Some have already had their shot at stardom, but hang on grimly. Old entertainers never die: "They just get worse gigs."
For this book, Kelner travelled around England's sadder, seedier venues and beyond, to Benidorm and a Mediterranean cruise ship, to watch and meet the elephant people. Among those he encountered were Tony Blackburn, shortly before his fortunes were restored by I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here!, performing a parody of his old shtick for indifferent youngsters in a Newcastle nightclub; "Mr Methane", a latterday Pétomane, farting Spice Girls hits for a crowd of insurance brokers; a Freddie Mercury tribute act at an athletics club outside Halifax; and Sticky Vicky, at 67 still one of Benidorm's top attractions, pulling flags, flowers and razor-blades out of what Kelner calls her "front bottom".
It is easy to make cheap jokes about these acts, but Kelner manages to combine scoffing with sympathy. Meeting Andrew Newton, a hypnotist whose conversation is studded with vicious comments about Paul McKenna, Kelner loyally declares a preference for Andrew's act on the grounds that McKenna is somewhat mechanical. Tony De La Fou, a juggler and fire-eater, becomes his new best friend, and Kelner details the birth of Tony's child.
This warmth, which gives the book a certain depth, is no doubt the product of Kelner's sense of being in the same boat. He was a semi-regular on Radio 2 and now presents a nightly sports phone-in on Radio Leeds: hardly failure, but a long way short of stardom. I don't know what the equivalent is in journalism: possibly being the bloke who reviews the editor's brother's book, Kelner being the name on the editor's door at this newspaper. To sceptical readers, I offer my earnest assurance that I always thought Martin was the talented one.
When Will I Be Famous? meanders a little more than is good for it, and Kelner's inability to get through a paragraph without a quip can be wearing. But the percentage of really sharp quips is impressive. If there was any justice, he would sell more copies than Bill Bryson. Since there isn't, he will have to settle for being a minor cult: not as lucrative as stardom, but a lot classier.