Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

The rudest Christmas letter ever writter

Each Christmas, the critic and biographer Roger Lewis sends friends a seasonal 'suicide note'. In hilariously caustic prose, it details family crises, the true awfulness of his celebrity acquaintances, and the dreary reality of a writer's life in the British provinces. This year's was his rudest and most outrageous ever...

January



As Coleridge used to say: "So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month – O Sorrow & Shame! I have done nothing." Except nearly 100 articles, for which I continue to be humiliatingly badly paid, and which get to be cut and subedited by morons, as if there is a conspiracy to make me look clumsy and illiterate.



On the home front, and to my mingled shame/horror/amusement, I discover that the children have been telling their friends that the fat complaining character shuffling about the place when they call is a Lithuanian asylum-seeker working half-heartedly as the maid – and their friends have been believing this without demur. Indeed, I'd believe it myself, should I be in their position. There was an alarming photo in the Hereford Times, which I thought was illustrating a feature about the disappearing barn owl. It turned out on investigation to be a picture of me... plucked and stuffed and with the expression of a man with a spear in his back.



I attend a New Year's Day Party at Anna's brother's mansion, about which I was correct to have misgivings. Three boring hours there, and three boring hours back. "If anybody asks me when we arrive if I'd like tea or coffee I'll be as mad as a meat-axe," I said (not my exact words). " Would you like tea or coffee?" I was asked when we arrived. The children looked at me expectantly – and I stood there with a silly grin all over my silly face. Other grown-up members of the family take boiled rice or melon balls to these parties. I contribute a forced gaiety.



The big news in Bromyard's local paper is that Age Concern "suffered a cruel setback" when somebody stole their kettle.



February



A local journalist came to interview me and got every fact it is possible to get wrong wrong. Martin Sheen, he wrote, is the actor who played Blair and Kenneth Williams. Pinter's famous play was The Carpenter. I said that Albert Camus was a comical French detective and he agreed with me.



My nephew Morgan, who some time ago dyed his hair pink, has announced that he has become a homosexualist. My mother reflected, having given this some serious thought, "But one thing you can say for them, they are always very kind, aren't they?"



The good news is that a woman in Hereford has been able to smell and taste a banana for the first time in 30 years. Says the paper: "Smoker Alison Smith decided to give up with unexpected results. She can now smell and taste bananas and her life has taken on a whole new meaning."



My birthday. Sébastien was home with the earache and I had to sit with him in the doctor's with all the spluttering old folk. The bank phoned at 9.31 precisely to say I was overdrawn and so, or hence, they wouldn't be paying my annual Legal & General life insurance premium. So I'm not allowed to die. Then one of my teeth fell out and I had to go to the fang bandit and spit blood into a bowl. It was my birthday and I was visibly – indeed cartoonishly – disintegrating before my loved ones.



The only thing to keep me going was reading in the Hereford Times that 81-year-old pensioner Joan Wheeler of Flax Place, off the Pershore Road in Upton Snodsbury, died after she "tripped over her cat, an inquest heard. A verdict of accidental death was recorded." But what happened to the cat? I worry about such loose ends.



March



My son, Oscar, is an extra in a film called Flick! being made by my friend David Howard in South Wales. Others in the cast: Faye Dunaway, Liz Smith and Terence Rigby. David had taken up my idea to fill the screen with dwarves. " You can't go wrong with dwarves," I'd said.



Oscar shared his scenes with a pair of choice Valleys midgets, called Hob and Knob. "The phone don't go very often for extra work," they explained, "because we stand out. We done three Harry Potters and in Barney she was the yellow one and I was the blue one. We have our own agent for people under five foot." I inquired if they'd ever worked with Martin Amis. "Who's he?" they asked.



Sheridan Morley has died. What a ghastly old hack he was, who always went out of his way to give me nasty reviews. The Brian Blessed of theatre reviewing. He once greeted Paul Bailey by breezily inquiring, "Hello Paul. Anything in the typewriter?" However, what a good title for a collection of journalism, Anything in the Typewriter? Then I was invited to his Memorial Service, so I felt (momentarily) guilty about thinking he was a fat, talentless idiot and a waste of the planet's oxygen.



Ian Richardson also drops dead. The mainspring of his performances was suppressed, vinegary camp. Several decades ago, when an understudy had to take over as Hamlet, Richardson, who was playing Rosencrantz, was most put out – because the understudy, whose name was Martin Hilltop, was crap. Martin Hilltop subsequently had a sex change to become Mavis Hilltop and lives in Majorca as a lesbian.



My Uncle Dick is in the thick of Alzheimer's in a home in Long Moor. He gets up and dresses in the middle of the night when the drugs wear off, and walks along the ward switching people's notes on the clipboards. He then gets back in the wrong bed and patients end up landing on the floor.



"He's been complaining that he lost his stick and the nurses said he never had a stick, but Evelyn took a new one in again on Friday, and she's had three types of cancer and is only on £50 a week," said my mother. NHS hospitals in South Wales are indeed a worry – a rugby player with a neck injury was taken to theatre for a hysterectomy.



April



I saw a lady in a mobile wheelchair in the Co-Op examining the detergents, one by one. "I want bleach to smell like bleach when I put it on my dishcloth, not patchouli," she muttered. I said I quite agreed. Do you know you can get Apple and Mango Toilet Duck now – when all you want to do is sluice the bog with it, not make a fruit salad.



My wife Anna's Auntie Lois had died in Stourbridge. I phoned her son (63), a telephone salesman in Wyre Piddle with my condolences. He was so upset he couldn't get any words out. "But she was 92," I said, failing to put on an entirely compassionate voice.



Needing, as we all do, a little light as spilled from heaven, I was tickled when my friend Steve said that Sir Archibald Clerk-Kerr, a former ambassador in Moscow, had a Turkish colleague whose business card said he was called Mustapha Kunt. "We all feel like that now and then, especially when Spring is upon us, but few of us would care to put it on our cards. It takes a Turk to do that."



To France, to see my son Tristan, who is working near Fougères as a group leader at an activity centre place. Zip wires, archery, quad bikes, etc. He tells the children that the frogs which have been used for frogs' legs in the kitchen are then fitted with little wheelchairs.



Then we went to visit Fatty Prescott. Fatty and I were Mixed Infants in Mrs Harrington's class many years ago, and he has now moved to live in Normandy, where he maintains the gardens of people's holiday homes. I was taken aback on entering his lounge to see many of my heirlooms filling the place – Victorian dressers, mirrors, chairs and pictures. Some of this furniture Anna and I bought in St Andrews. It turns out that my mother had sold it all to him when emptying the various French houses after my father's death. I'd have been less outraged if at least she'd freely given it away. But to have done it without saying anything to me... Perhaps this is how she afforded her sat-nav, her new friend. She shouts back at it and had a huge argument trying to find a wool shop in Llandeilo.



Uncle Dick has had his stick taken from him because he's been sword fighting with it. He thought he was back doing National Service and the ward was the barracks.



May



I was asked at the last minute to do an Oldie lunch at Simpsons. "Who dropped out then?" I asked. "Michael Winner," they replied. God knows how many people they'd asked to stand in for Michael Winner before in desperation they got to me – and even I said no. I suggested they call Syd Little, "the clown who made a nation laugh".



I have an email stalker, a man with a metal plate in his head in Grimsby. Up to six messages and attachments a day, which I delete unopened. He started as a fan, and then grew familiar, and finally he became aggressive and contemptuous. He'd send me clippings of my own articles, covered with yellow highlighter pen and teacher-style ticks and crosses. "You only appear in the Mail on Sunday so that people on the lavatory in Bedwas will think Lewis the butcher's son has done well." As if 30 years on this is my motivation! Which, of course, it is. He particularly hates me for knowing famous people, whereas in point of absolute fact my closest proximity to celebrity is that I once had a postcard from Gyles Brandreth, sent with a second-class stamp.



The first Christmas catalogue arrived on 15 May.



At the Bromyard Afternoon Club, the monthly raffle made £18 and the Bring & Buy made £9. At their next meeting Mr Maskell will be talking about his Memories of Hazardous Chemicals.



June



We went to Upton-on-Severn for a picnic because I'd heard there was a place there called Minge Lane. I saw a strange film later, in which Beryl Reid turned into a frog, the great George Sanders was the butler, Nicky Henson rode a motorbike, and Robert "Tim" Hardy – who at the age of 70 is still more Martha than Arthur – stuck out his jaw and pursed his mouth to imply consternation. Or did I dream the whole thing up?



To Lord of the Rings at Drury Lane. It was so bad and portentous I thought Brian Blessed was in it. I couldn't tell if we were meant to be down a mine or up a hill; nor were the characters differentiated: I didn't realise that Aragorn and Legolas, Arwen and Galadriel, and Gandalf and Saruman were not the same person(s). Or whether Lothlorien was a place or a character. I just don't know my Orc from my Ent. Only Asperger's syndrome sufferers and boys pre-girlfriends like Tolkien – for there's no actual social interaction (it is all battles and set speeches; no eroticism or comedy); everybody exists in stately, rule-bound isolation.



In Hereford a woman threw her artificial leg off a bridge into the Wye, " as a desperate plea for help". Vikky Stakis from Massingberd Gardens who lost her real leg to diabetes said she was "totally frustrated" with the way she was being treated – specifically, the council has yet to fit her stairs with a stair lift, she can only shower "when her husband helps," her wheelchair doesn't fit through the door, and her commode is so "badly designed and unsafe" she has often fallen off, " suffering many bumps and bruises". She also wants somebody to come and do all her housework. What a palaver! I hope nobody kindly retrieved her artificial leg and that by now it has floated out to sea.



July



Our friends the Turners have a fancy dress party in Raglan. There were seven Batman and Robin duos, five Jack Sparrows from Pirates of the Caribbean, two Queen Mothers in plastic tiaras from Suzie's Fancy Dress Shop in Trethomas, 11 Pocohontases, and 268 nuns.



Gyles Brandreth called in for lunch on his way to address the Oswestry branch of Bingo for the Deaf. I asked him if it is true that Sandi Toksvig is an Eskimo ? The last time a celebrity visited Bromyard was in 1964 when Princess Margaret attended a church service, so this was a red letter day indeed. Gyles is always out and about public speaking and earning big bikkies doing corporates. Next week it's the turn of The British Man-Made Fibres Federation's dinner dance.



My mother said that Morgan went to Gran Canaria and got beaten up outside a nightclub by Mexicans. I puzzled over this for ages – until the penny dropped that she meant Moroccans.



August



To the Hotel Quirinale in Rome for our silver wedding anniversary. It's not in any guide book, but it's where the characters stay in Tender is the Night. I doubt if it has been visited much since Fitzgerald's day: a ghostly bar, huge empty public rooms, dusty red velvet curtains, vast marble staircases. An atmosphere of faded opulence.



Tristan stayed at home in Bromyard with Amy Tortue, the Montmartre tap dancer. When we got back we found he'd lit garden flares in the bedroom; he thought they were ordinary candles. Having recently passed his driving test at the seventh attempt, he has already been in one (non-serious) crash and one near-miss.



Owing to the biblical floods and the prospective hike in the price of market-garden produce, my mother went all the way to Asda to get "two packets of frozen peas". She had a bump in the lanes on the way back. The airbag went off, and the airbag broke. "My right tit came up all bruised," she said.



To Austria, where at the Stadttheater in Gmunden a man played Der Ring des Nibelungen from start to finish on the tuba.



Chocolate Santas and Xmas shortbread went on sale in Bromyard Co-op on 28 August.



September



I am a big fan of The Tenbury Tappers, nine old birds in fishnet stockings who tap dance to Nino Rota. It was hysterical – but no one laughed. The artistes were so solemn, with a lot of audible counting and sideways glancing to keep in time. I have never known an audience paralysed in such sheer incredulity before. But I'll say this: a 15 stone woman in the autumn of her years does not look good in a tutu.



Parties for Sebastian Horsley, The Oldie, Paula Rego, Duckworth, Laura Thompson, the British Art Fair, and Malcolm Williamson (at Australia House). Didn't go to any of them. But we did go to see Mickey Rooney in Cheltenham: I like finding out what the Fool is up to had he outlived King Lear, though it was a miracle Mickey survived the night. He is 90 years old and reminisced about Lionel Barrymore as if people might know who he was.



Also to Stratford to see Twelfth Night, with John Lithgow (my Blake Edwards) as Malvolio. "Roger! How great to see you!" he beamed, whilst walking away very fast in the opposite direction. He sent me a letter afterwards reiterating that it had indeed been great to see me. It was a shit production. Nevertheless I'm interested in John Lithgow's playing Anthony Burgess if I can get another biopic off the ground.



October



Oscar's eighteenth. He wanted lobster for his birthday meal, so I ordered a brace (is that the right word?) from Scotland. When the box arrived there was this scratching noise, and it transpired that these lobsters were still alive and full of beans. I didn't know whether to settle them in Miller's old basket and keep them as pets that'd need walking, or what. Well, in the end I chucked them in a pot of boiling water and was quite the gourmet chef (i.e, I swore a lot and showed off). We were all over the place this month: Oscar to Venice, Sébastien to Florida, Tristan to Paris (to see Amy Tortue), me to Austria for a few blissful days. Anna was back and forth to the airport a hundred times.



I presented the prizes at a comprehensive school in South Wales. The girl who won for 100 per cent attendance during her whole school career didn't show up to collect her book token, which was ironic. "Fail! She can't have it, now!" I said. I asked for a glass of red wine at the buffet; an HM Bateman moment because only card-carrying poofters drink wine in South Wales. The metalwork teacher had to put on a disguise and run up the road to Oddbins. They gave me a bottle of Talisker Single Malt as a gift, which still had its security tag on. "You have very good shoplifters here," I said to the headmaster. The alarms went off as we drove home past the off licence. Even I'd have seen the funny side if the VIP guest speaker at a Welsh comprehensive school had ended up handcuffed in the cells of the local nick.



November



To the Amazon River and a Saga Cruise with Craig Brown, Mavis Nicholson, Rosie Boycott and television's much-loved Maureen Lipman. Plus our spouses and partners. My bar bill was over £900. We'd get off the ship and spend all morning in a minibus to look at a rusty cannon and four goats. Museums were always closed and when we went piranha fishing we didn't catch any.



Maureen was pursued by the Bulgarian maître d' and a Welshman who had thighs plated like an armadillo. The Welshman gave private snorkelling lessons, which may be why the ship ran out of fresh water. I thought I'd been bitten by a vampire, but in fact I'd fallen on a cocktail umbrella. Mavis said the WI love it when she gives talks on vibrators. The bestsellers are The Pocket Pleaser, The Rampant Rabbit, and The Reliant Robin. Brazil was very hot.



People laughed at the toucan-shaped salad tossers I bought as souvenirs, but only because they were jealous. On the flight home the drink ran out just as the trolley reached our row, the toilets were blocked "because too many people have been using them", an OAP went mad and tried to steal the Pringles, another OAP lost his temper and threw his cutlery on the floor, and when the stewardess dragged a canvas sack down the aisle I didn't bat an eyelid; obviously it contained a body. Armed police and growling dogs met the plane at Gatwick and many of my fellow shipmates are now in Wormwood Scrubs with orange bags over their heads.



Roger Lewis is the author of The Real Life of Laurence Olivier (£9.99) and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (£10.99), which are both published by Arrow.

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