Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Thursday 23 February 1995
Elton John cut a dignified, or at least an unembarrassing figure at the Brits on Monday, where he picked up a Life Achievement award and sang I'm Still Standing at the end. For the flipside of both qualities - the dignity and the carrying oneself upright - fans should hurry to the new issue of Q magazine, out next week, which features probably the most explicit interview with a rock star since Lemmy from Motorhead tried to bite off bits of himself, mid-conversation, while driving down the M1 at 120mph.
"Sometimes when I'm flying over the Alps," Elton reminisces, "I think, that's like all the cocaine I sniffed." Asked what sort of drunk he was, the former Rocket Man replies: "Vicious. Reducing best friends to tears and the next day not being able to remember ... Once in Los Angeles, I was so drunk and the next day, Bernie Taupin phoned and said, `I've never been so ashamed of you in my life'. I said, `Why?' Apparently, I was just disgraceful. I was trying to kiss Ray Davies." So now we know what - in rock 'n' roll circles anyway - is the ultimate act of blasphemous lese- majeste.
When did your hairdresser last say anything interesting? "See the match last night?" "Going anywhere nice for your holidays?" "Keeping busy, are you?" - this is the short change of the trichologist's obiter dicta. Not so in Fulham, where every two months I put my efflorescing barnet into the hands of a youth called Billy. (The salon also employs a Japanese lady called Kooi, who cuts my daughter's hair: Billy and Kooi - a romantic place.) Last week, Billy revealed he suffered from asthma. Oh, I asked, a childhood complaint, is it? Nah, he said. Parrot.
Come again? "My son got a parrot for a present, Colin by name, and it used to shed its feathers a lot, so I'd make the feathers into collages and draw a beak on them and give them to friends." And? "Well, parrots - as you know - produce a special body dust to keep their wings dry in the rain, and the dust gets into your lungs when it flies about."
So that gave you asthma? "Not exactly," said Billy, with the air of a man who has been the talk of Harley Street. "Extrinsic allergic alveolitis to be precise, also known as Pigeon Fancier's Lung. Terrible condition. You have to take steroids, which brings you out in rashes, scabs on the cranium ... it's all cleared up now, of course. It just took some drastic action."
"You mean the Department of Tropical Medicines at Guy's Hospital?"
"Nah. Got rid of the parrot. Swapped it for a hamster called Nellie."
All this and a fancy new hairstyle. I looked on the bill for an "Interesting Facts 'n' Info" surcharge, but there was, bafflingly, no sign.
Into my hands has fallen the most revolting catalogue I've ever seen. It's from Limbs and Things, a Bristol company whose jolly Toys-R-Us name belies the grossness of their productions. They make actual-size anatomical models of bits of the human body in frighteningly life-like near-flesh, and sell them to hospitals for training purposes. It's an idea that would have been applauded by anatomy teachers 200 years ago (and by Jack the Ripper, I dare, say, 100 years ago); but it's with mixed feelings that one surveys the price list. A liver costs £120, as does an "Ingrowing toenail (life-size)", but I mean, £850 for a fully-operational knee is a bit of a facer. Veins, on the other hand, are a snip at £15 each with optional phials of mock blood at only £3.50. Can this be what they mean by body consumerism?
It must be a biographer's nightmare. For years, you have painstakingly charted the life of a long-dead literary figure, whose complete works have long been tucked away in the canon of literature. Then you read in the Sunday Times that your subject's oeuvre has been virtually doubled by the discovery of 300 "new poems". This was the dilemma facing Richard Holmes, prize-winning author of Coleridge: The Early Years, when Dr James Mays of University College, Dublin, revealed to the paper the result of his 20-year researches through every cranny of the Coleridgean universe.
Initially, Holmes was delighted. "I hold my hands up in applause at this work," he said. "Since many of these discoveries are from the second half of his career, and I'm working on Volume Two, it's a marvellous gift for me." Then he read the ST piece properly and called back.
"Hang on," said Holmes. "These aren't new poems. At least the ones mentioned in the Sunday Times aren't. Several of them appear in Coleridge's letters, especially to his assistant JH Greene. They may not be part of the Collected Poems, but we know of their existence all right." Mr Holmes, whose concluding volume of Coleridge's life is out in late 1996, is the least competitive of men. But he could not conceal in his voice the authentic note of the academic infighter: "As for this claim about the sonnet Fancy in Nubius being found in Rome, written on a piece of seaweed. It may well have been found there, but the original was written in 1818 on the promenade at Littlehampton...".
The search for a new literary editor at the Guardian continues glumly. The shortlist is now so long it rivals those of Emily and Schindler combined. One reason for lack of result may be the presence on the selection panel of James Wood, the newspaper's chief literary critic, a chap noted for his withering scorn at his elders and betters. It is not, however, his reputation that prospective candidates object to; more the experience of being interrogated about a job by a future employees. The idea has potential, though. Maybe the personnel department at British Gas or the NatWest should try it ...
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