Our own Forrest Gump

Cal McCrystal discovers the engaging charm of a brother whom we love to mock profile Terry Major-Ball
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The Independent Online
THE siblings of famous men and women can be a help or a handicap. President Kennedy's brother Bobby - handsome, able, heedful to the fraternal wish - clearly falls into the first category. President Carter's brother Billy - beer-swiller, sometime friend of Colonel Gaddafi - most certainly belongs to the second. To some extent it depends on how much the siblings can resist the lure of media fame. Baroness Thatcher's sister Muriel, an East Anglian farmer's wife, was a textbook lesson in unembarrassing anonymity. She said almost nothing all through the Thatcher years. She was an oyster that refused to open to the tap of the reporter's pencil.

The same cannot be said of the present Prime Minister's elder brother. Terry Major-Ball has become a media star, or perhaps a media pet. Is he a help or a handicap? The jury is still out on this one, but last week Mr Major-Ball discovered that his recently found celebrity status can exact a painful price. It was to Mr Major-Ball that the media went when they sought comment on the story that John Major had enjoyed a "relationship" with a Jean Kierans, divorced and rather older than Mr Major, when he was a young single man 30 years ago. Mr Major-Ball said that he could not imagine sex played any part in this friendship, such was the moral code of the Major-Balls. But the media wanted more.

At his home in Wallington, Surrey, Mr Major-Ball went into retreat. He was, he said later last week, "steering clear of the media for the moment". He had decided that "enough is enough ... I'm between a rock and a hard place, talking about a brother and someone I haven't seen for a long time who was a friend of the family. It's time to hibernate for a while."

THIS could be difficult. Mr Major-Ball is easy meat for media charmers, just as he himself charms others. He has, for example, disarmed the likes of Ian Hislop and Auberon Waugh. He has dined and lunched with the Marquess of Bath, Sir Denis Thatcher, Claus von Bulow and Nicholas Soames. He has appeared on television with Esther Rantzen and Crystal Rose (twice). TV company limos have nosed their way down his street, collecting and delivering his solid frame to and from the studios. He has been flown to New York by Virgin Airways. He has presented graduation certificates at Zippo's Academy of Circus Arts. His friendly monotone drifts across publishers' parties. Ten days ago, the Oldie magazine named him Big Brother of the Year at a do in Simpson's In The Strand.

He loves all this, and we, it seems, love him. But why?

Terry Major-Ball is 62, 11 years older than his brother. Until five years ago, he had never been abroad, except for National Service in Germany, nor even seen what he quaintly calls an "aerodrome". He had not seen a West End play or eaten in a West End restaurant. He was born in the humdrum outer suburbs of south London and his education went no further than primary school ("If I won the pools, I'd like a private tutor to help improve my spelling"). His honeymoon in 1960 was spent in a borrowed shack on a Kent mudflat where his bride, Shirley, snagged her stocking on the bedstead. "I looked at her little face, tear-stained and screwed up," he recalled, and thought himself "the biggest cad in the world".

The rise from obscurity began in 1990 when writers were preparing biographies of the new Prime Minister and sought reminiscence, information, and help to sort out the complexities of the Major or Major-Ball or Ball family history. Pat, the oldest sibling, was uncommunicative. But in Terry journalists found somebody garrulous and uncomplicated. He will tell you almost anything you want to know about him, and quite a lot you might not. Last week, for example, while explaining his decision not to talk to journalists, to me as a journalist, he said: "And not only that, I've had this terrible cough, and I'm coughing so violently that I keep putting my back out. This morning my left leg was a bit dead all the way down. So I'm a bit worried; I just don't want a bad back as well at the moment."

He also happened to be the custodian of his family's history. In 1993, he was much sought after when it became known that he was writing a family memoir. Last year Major Major: Memories of an Older Brother was published and launched him into what passes these days for society. There he became not so much an oyster that needed to be opened as an oyster that sometimes needed to be shut. He is completely unself-conscious and so became a prized rarity at parties, like a friendly Tierra del Fuegan at a Regency soiree. He is also (as well, the snobbish might say, he might be) completely egalitarian. The combination of these two qualities can yield interesting results. A visitor to the modish GQ magazine's Christmas party at a modish address in Soho last year remembers passing Mr Major-Ball at the door, where, on his way out, he had been accosted by a couple of young doormen ("Too noisy for you then, Mr M?"). Ten minutes later, the same visitor left (the party was indeed too noisy) to find Terry still on the doorstep, where the role of detainers and detained had switched. He was in full and steady flow, while the doormen were hopping abstractedly from foot to foot.

Does this open oyster contain pearls? Not really, or not at least of a political or gravely embarrassing kind. He is intensely protective towards his younger brother - hence, his distress about the Jean Kierans revelations - and almost reverential about his parents. He worked with his father when the latter gave up his circus act to make concrete garden gnomes. The business failed and Terry became a clerical assistant, and then a member of the unemployed, with a bad back. Until John entered Downing Street, Terry and Shirley were content to devote all their energies to their home and garden, son and daughter (who is now married).

He looks like his younger brother and has sometimes been mistaken for him. But unlike the Prime Minister he has no need to be thought to prefer motorway nosh over rare rib of beef.

He likes his outings to Simpson's and the Savoy Grill. And his use of words is much more direct, even though the brothers share that same ponderous formality in the way they speak. He is on good terms with editors and their staff, who publish his intriguing soundbites: "The Blair family should be very happy [at No 10]. It all depends what furniture they put in"; "[My new portrait] will not be hanging in Downing Street, only prime ministers hang there. I am more likely to hang on Mitcham Common"; "I prefer brunettes. I think Linda Lusardi is a very attractive lady". Beryl Bainbridge is a pal. Was not he himself one of the literati now? "Oh I cringe when anyone says that, though it's very nice. People always accuse John of wanting to be liked. I don't know about that. But I certainly prefer to be liked than disliked."

Television and radio certainly like him. As well as being interviewed on the Crystal Rose Show ("Crystal is a tall, slim, elegant black lady. Being a minor celebrity is great fun if it enables you to meet people like Crystal"), he has been on GMTV, ITN, Sky News, the Sky Book Show, the BBC World Service, and half a dozen local radio stations. He feels no strain. In fact, he said last week, "I've been a bit worried about not being nervous on television, except for the first half-minute. I've started to wonder if maybe there's a bit of theatre in the blood."

People write to him to say how much they enjoyed Major Major. Last week, he met a man who asked him to sign four copies of the book, which W H Smith refuses to stock. "When I told Auberon [Waugh] about W H Smith, he got on to them and they gave some very peculiar reasons, one of which was that they weren't quite sure which shelf to put it on."

His book has been well received, and he hopes for a reprint. Might he move from his modest home of 15 years to a big house in the country? "Ha! Not at 62p a copy I won't," he said, adding: "I'm not one to quibble over money. I've never been a terribly good businessman. Money has never been my first priority, yet at the moment I could desperately do with making some, because I'd like Shirley to be able to retire.

"People assume that, when your name is in the paper or you appear on television, you're getting paid vast sums of money. I'm going on a show in a month's time - a comedy chat show - and I'll be lucky to get £50."

He is at ease with such "personalities" as Richard Ingrams ("quite a nice chap") and Dame Barbara Castle ("She deserved to have been made a lady"). To be addressed as "Sir" in the Savoy Grill has given him great pleasure - "especially coming from someone [thought to be Sir Denis Thatcher] who has been knighted".

PERHAPS Mr Major-Ball is Britain's Forrest Gump - an old-fashioned and dim symbol of innocence in a naughty and clever world. Perhaps he has been ironised and patronised, and used shamelessly. But we must also consider another possibility: that he is a genuinely engaging fellow and that people genuinely like him, just as they might like his younger brother, if he would only stop being the Prime Minister.