Interview: Ian Dury: Great sense of tumour

The Deborah Ross Interview: When Ian Dury found he had cancer it was unlikely that our greatest living Cockney and Clever Bastard would come over all self-pitying and lose his lust for life. Well of course he didn't: a portrait of the artist as a diamond geezer

Kenwood House, the stately home on Hampstead Heath in north London, and a belter of a day. The sky is blue. The sun is hot. The grounds are lush and green. Babies in lacy sun bonnets sit up in their prams. Small children roll gigglingly down the inclines. A young couple neck greedily in the shade of a big tree. Ian Dury loves it here. Ian Dury, who now lives in Hampstead, comes here often. "It's just so bloody gorgeous innit?" he sighs happily. "It's just so English. It's just so... who was that geezer? Coleridge?"

Ian Dury - inspirational pop figure, occasional playwright and actor - is big. Or maybe, I should say, gives the impression of being big. His lower body is actually very small, diminished by childhood polio, but his head and neck are huge. He looks part Oliver Reed, part Bill Sykes - or part Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes and part Bill Sykes's dog, which, if I recall rightly, also had a small body and big head and may have been called Bull's Eye.

He could look quite scary and would, were it not for the softening, humorous accessories, such as the Joan Collins-style sunglasses that he recently bought from a Rastafarian in a park for pounds 4. A man strolls past, out walking his two gorgeous Dalmatians. "Oi mate," calls out Ian, "lovely bit a dog action you got going there!" It is idyllic here. It is brilliantly Coleridge. But I wonder, naturally, do heavenly days like this feel even more precious, once you know your time is running out? A cliche of a question, I know, but I've got a cliche for a mind sometimes and just can't help myself. He says: "I just don't think like that. It's not in me nature. Do I ever get depressed? No. I only get hangovers. Ha! Ha! Shall we 'ave a cuppa in the caff? And some crisps? I'm quite peckish, I think."

In 1996, Ian Dury was diagnosed as having cancer of the colon. He underwent an operation, but then secondary tumours appeared on his liver. "When the specialist diagnosed it six months ago, I said: `What's the worst scenario?' He said: `Eight months.' "

Ian, I ask in my hopelessly clumsy way, how does it feel to know you are... um... dying? "Bloody irritating! But I haven't shaken my fists at the moon, if that's what you mean. I'm not that sort of a geezer. I'm 56 and mustn't grumble. I've had a good crack, as they say."

Do you ever feel sorry for yourself?

"No. Sorry for yourself is for wankers, innit?"

Any plans to become Cancer Spice?

"No! I don't like the Spice Girls. I call it the Italia Conti School of Music. I prefer the All Saints. At least they make at an attempt at singing and move their arses right."

There is, at the moment, no cure for such secondary liver tumours, although treatment can help prolong life, perhaps even keep the disease at bay for six, seven years. Ian is currently hooked up to a "Hickman Line" which feeds him drugs intravenously all day every day, and is not such a humorous accessory. The line consists of "this little chap 'ere" (a pouch of chemicals, which he wears around his waist) and tubes that have been inserted directly into his chest. His biggest fear, he says, is that some mugger is going to think the pouch is a money bag, grab it and pull me lungs out."

No, he's not frightened of death, even though he doesn't believe in God or any kind of afterlife. "There's nothing beyond, if you ask me, but that's alright. The human mind is such an amazing thing, that this life's been enough for me." I ask him what he thinks makes life worthwhile. "To love and be loved," he replies, "and to watch me kids." Being as cliched emotionally as I am intellectually, I find I get a bit choked up. Ian says no sympathy, please. "Look up sympathy in the dictionary," he cries, "and you'll find it comes between shit and syphilis, ha, ha!"

Ian Dury has always been a terrific one-off. Not just as a bloke, but also as a pop star. His music, a sort of cross between rock and music hall with immensely witty lyrics, has always been very much his own. He writes songs about having it off in the back of his Cortina with Nina who is more obscener than a seasoned-up hyena. He has, over the years, introduced us to Billericay Dickie, Plaistow Patricia, Clever Trevor ("knock me down wiv a fevva"), "Sex'n'Drugs'n'Rock'n Roll" and, of course, "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick", which shifted a million copies in the UK alone in January 1979.

Anyway, now reunited with his band The Blockheads, he has just bought out his first album for 17 years. "Why so long? Because I'm rubbish! For every good song, I write 20 bad ones I have to chuck away." Mr Love Pants as the album is called, is as good and as cheeky as anything he's done. There is an ode to a sandwich maker (Geraldine) that appears to exist purely for the pleasure of rhyming "inamorata" with a very cockney delivery of "dried tomato." Plus there is the brilliant way Dury delivers them: Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes as Rex Harrison.

Certainly, Dury has always been more concerned with doing his own thing than being famous or rich. Money has never especially interested him, and most of it goes on medical care. He is being treated privately, yes. "I'm a socialist, but I didn't want to go on no waiting list and become a dead socialist." He reckons he must have spent pounds 50,000 to date. "I'm not terribly rich, but I've managed to so far. I might have to sell me Rembrandt, though."

He could be a lot richer. Some years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber asked him to adapt the lyrics for the musical Cats. "But I said no straight off. I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber. He';s a wanker, isn't he?" Well, he seems very popular, I say.

"Popular. Popular! Aqua are popular! But it don't mean they're any good. To be good, you have to be semi-popular, like me. Every time I hear `Don't Cry For Me Argentina' I feel sick, it's so bad. He got Richard Stillgoe to do the lyrics in the end, who's not as good as me. He made million sout of it. He's crap, but he did ask the top man first!"

Dury can be quite horrid about people. Oasis are rubbish, too, he says. "They're not very good and the music's boring." Shakespeare is boring. "I'm very good friends with Helen Mirren. She told me to read it 'cos I'd love it. But I can't see the point in it." He detests opera. He is undecided about Philip Larkin. "I think I'd quite like him if he weren't such a bitter, curmudgeonly old bastard." You might, from this, take him to be a bitter, curmudgeonly old bastard himself, but

he isn't. He just says these things because he's not frightened of saying what he thinks. He actually strikes me as a very loveable bloke. And the cheerful acceptance of his illness is typical. He could be mean, angry and bitter. But isn't because, possibly, the first bit of his life was so rotten he decided nothing would ever be as rotten. His mother, Peggy was the middle-class daughter of a doctor while his father, Billy, was a working-class bus driver turned chauffeur. Quite a dandy, by the sound of it. "He was very good looking. Very handsome, with a broken nose. He'd been a boxer once. My dad was quite something. He could fart the first line of God Save The Queen. I think he had a stomach ulcer. Certainly, he always had a lot of wind."

His parents split shortly after Ian was born, then he contracted polio from, he thinks, a swimming pool in Southend. He was in bed for the best part of a year and, at the end, had a wasted left side. He says he didn't mind when he was told he'd have to wear callipers. "When you've been encased in plaster for eight months, you don't worry about something that's going to help you walk." He still wears them.

He was dispatched to a special school for the disabled in Sussex where, he says, a lot of sexual abuse went on. "A lot of the staff were pervs. No buggery, but a lot of enforced wanking." In terms of his disability he wasn't the worst-off, he says. "You know, there were kids with just fingers coming out their shoulders. Still, they played ping-pong. They were f***ing lunatics!" He was very bright, and got accepted at a grammar school where he was initially bullied. "These loony prefects called me Spastic Joe, so I grassed 'em up. I wasn't having any of that."

His first ambition was to become a painter so he went to art school in Walthamstow, where he did big paintings of either gangsters or naked ladies ("I was very interested in Trilby hats and tits") and married a fellow student, Betty, by whom he had two children, Baxter and Jemima, now young adults. He was thrilled to become a dad. "When me old man died, I got two grand so me and Betty decided: "Right, we'll buy a fridge and have a baby."

His paintings were never successful commercially. "I spent 12 years not earning a crust, so I started doing music as a joke. I thought of a name, Kilburn and The High Roads, and then got a band together." The band became Ian Dury and The Blockheads, who were to have their first big hit in 1977 with the punk anthem "Sex'n Drugs'n'Rock'n'Roll".

Fame did not, as it happens, miss going to his head entirely. He and Betty divorced in 1985 mostly because, it seems, he could not resist women who pursued him. "I was 30-years-old and getting smothered in birds, smothered." His leg has never put women off, he says. "I lost me virginity at 14 on Upminster common. Gorgeous it was." He remained on good terms with Betty who died four years ago from, yes, cancer.

He has since married the sculptress Sophy Tilson, the daughter of the artist Joe Tilson, who is 23 years his junior. He now has two little sons - Albert, three, and Billy, one - who, he says, smell lovely. "Like chocolate and coconut." No, they don't know he's ill. Yes, he does think about not being there to see who they grow into, but not morbidly. "They'll be alright. They've got their mum."

Anyway, he's due for another scan this week, which will tell him the state of his tumours. As we part, two magpies flutter down. "Two for joy!" I exclaim in my clumsy way. "Perhaps the news won't be that bad." "Only if you believe in that sort of crap," says Ian cheerfully. One of us might not be a cliched thinker. And I don't think it's me.

`Mr Love Pants' is available for pounds 12.99 on Ian's label, Ronnie Harris Records, which he named after his accountant because "I knew he'd take care of the business if I named it after ` im".

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