It began in the garden. I’ve had my share of pretty serious illness over recent years and wherever you look there are steps all over our plot. And I’m no mountain goat.
So losing that plot was, originally, a quite literal transfer of responsibility. ‘Er Outdoors took over the tatties and tomatoes, I made the tea.
But the years are taking more than a physical toll in another, more important ‘upstairs’ area. Like many of my contemporaries the ‘steel trap’ of a brain I once possessed is rusting. Around this point in a column I need to work hard to remember what I started writing about.
So my plan is to write a serial of my reminiscences before the lights go out completely. And if I screech to a sudden stop mid-story don’t despair, it will boomerang back to me eventually.
We might all just have to wait a week or so. . .
FERRARI CAN BARELY WAIT for the end of his LBC breakfast show to call me with the news.
“You’re all over the Daily Mail’, matey” he gushes. I freeze. This can’t be good news. Former editors of rival newspapers can expect only rough handling from the opposition, even decades into retirement. Besides, Nasty Nick is enjoying my immediate discomfort far too much for my liking.
I press the phone hard against my left ear, the better to shield my wife – sitting to my right but suddenly uncomfortably close – from whatever horrendous details might be about to follow. She eyes my behaviour suspiciously. Nodding a reassuring smile in her direction I boom into the phone, “GEMMA SENDS HER LOVE,” in a tone we both know is code for ‘Shut the f**k up!” Fortunately, he takes the hint and drops his voice to the decibel range of an adjacent foghorn.
“I’m texting you the article as we speak,” he says conspiratorially, his voice moderated to the level of a sergeant major’s bark. “It’s in Andrew Pierce’s gossip column.”
What the hell can it be? I wonder as I wait for the text to arrive. I live in Northumberland, not North London, and my misdeeds these days amount to little more than cheating the local farmers out of domino winnings at the pub along the road. A far cry from those days when Ferrari worked for me as Features Editor at the Daily Mirror. Or later, when we co-presented radio shows at LBC and Talk; when long lunches and late nights were the norm and black-tie dinners invariably earned black marks for bad boys like us. But these days. . ?
I need not have worried. Far from my name being splashed “all over the Daily Mail” as Nick had teased, the words ‘David Banks, ex-editor of The Mirror’ had spilled from the mouth of former Conservative MP Jerry Hayes only to support his not-very-jaw-dropping revelation that during the ad break in a cable TV show in which I was interviewing him “. . . the camera operators hopped onto a nearby couch and had sex and then casually came back to film us.”
“There’s a ‘comment’ button at the end of the story,” says Nick, “you could have your say.”
“No bloody fear,” I say. Years of chemotherapy have robbed me of three-fifths of my memory, including any recollection of the alleged Live TV interview with the former MP for Harlow in Essex. Besides, I like Jerry and I’m wary of tangling with barristers, evespecially one who was ‘outed’ in Piers Morgan’s Mirror in 1997 (‘Nuffin‘ to do wiv me, guv’) over a sexual peccadillo which modesty and fair play forbid I revive here.
“Anyway, if anyone is to react to the allegation it should be you,” I remind Ferrari. “You were Number Two to the ‘queen of yoof television’ at the time. If it did happen, you and Janet Street-Porter would have known about it.”
Actually, Jerry Hayes may well be correct: the Mirror Group’s cable TV station was an untamed beast back in the Nineties, what with its weather bulletins presented with subtitles by a Norwegian blonde, a bouncing News Bunny mascot (he once ran for parliament) and topless women playing darts.
Losing the plot I may be but mention of the lunchtime Live TV chat show I used to present at that time revives memories even more disturbing than the one recalled by my barrister friend Jerry Hayes. Here’s my favourite:
I was scheduled to present a discussion on renewal and recycling,subjects well ahead of their time but inspired by Street-Porter’s command to her Live TV producer that she wanted to appeal to “the ‘yoof’ audience by ditching the standard television studio set – presenter’s desk, sober black chairs and a DFS sofa for guests – with what her toothy, Cockney dialect pronounced as “Schkipp furniture”. The studio manager immediately took this to be a new range of Swedish softwood items from IKEA and protested that his measly budget wouldn’t extend that far.
“Nah, nah!” Janet had screamed. “I mean you should send people out after dark to look in ‘schkipps’ – you know, them containers people park in the road and fill wiv unwanted stuff!”
Janet’s word was law: within days our TV discussion studio was filled with a circle of creaky but brightly-painted unmatched wooden ex-kitchen chairs which would support the bottoms of whichever passing celeb was freely available (and by ‘freely’ I mean ‘didn’t expect a fee’!).
First up were a woman from Southern Water who was doing the media rounds warning of a coming drought; the late Tony Banks (no relation),a local Labour MP and then Minister for Sport; and the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, at the time Bishop of Stepney, in whose diocese our Canary Wharf studio lay and who had dropped in on a ‘parish visit’ and was immediately propelled into a spare seat to supply ‘gravitas’.
My namesake politician, delayed in lunchtime traffic, arrived after the discussion had begun. With the cameras pointed elsewhere he was smuggled into an old kitchen chair which was wobbly but had, at Janet’s command, been given a coat of shiny paint and was therefor deemed ‘fit for purpose’. Only it wasn’t. . .
No sooner had MP Tony sat down on his (frankly, falling-apart) piece of furniture than a creaky, gaping joint closed up under his weight and nipped the most sensitive part of his anatomy in a pincer-like grip through his trousers.
“JESUS-effing-CHRIST!” he screamed, leaping to his feet with the chair still painfully attached to his anatomy. “What the f**k’s got hold of my knackers?!”
Now it was called ‘Live’ TV for a good reason: no pre-records, no bleep button, no opportunity to edit awkward moments. Just a presenter, expected to cover any situation with bluff and hearty good cheer.
“Ah, w-w-welcome M-M P-P Tony B-Banks,” I stammered as hidden, fumbling fingers tried desperately to extricate the politician’s private parts from the rapidly-collapsing piece of ‘Schkipp’ furniture. “I don’t believe you’ve met His Excellency the Bishop of Stepney. . ?”
The cameras never stopped rolling. Neither did the eyes of the young woman from Southern Water!
COVID-19, that gift that keeps on giving, blighted our Christmas in a most unfortunate manner.
For nine weeks my wife has been trekking 300 miles to London by train to child-mind our ten-month-old grandson (Ale)Xander while his mother the journo publishes The Guardian single-handed (she claims) from her spare bedroom. Apparently, journalism is returning to its days as a cottage industry, which is what it was when I started out.
Anyway, this arrangement went zippingly until the final day of the ninth week when, heading north around about Doncaster, the Guardianista called to say she had tested positive, that the grandson’s first Christmas in Crookham would have to be abandoned and that we should isolate. Or hibernate. Whatever. Which is a great piece of news four hours away from a Sainsbury’s home delivery of enough food and drink to provision a battleship and enough boxes of Pampers, Babywipes and Aptamil to sink one!
Naturally, upon testing to retching point her own laryngeal fluids, Mrs Banks announced that she, too, had fallen prey to the dratted virus and that the rest of the festive season would be spent unpacking the Sainsbury’s order in separate rooms while isolating from the world and each other. And yep, you guessed it: I, the highly vulnerable veteran who has been slowly slipping off the perch since being diagnosed 23 years ago with pretty well every deadly disease known to man, tested negative.
So it was a quiet Christmas, thanks for asking. It began as soon as I collected my COVID Queen from Berwick Station. She rather grandly isolated herself in the rear seat and commanded in muffled tones through her NHS face mask, “Home, James.”
The journey, largely silent under a dark, brooding sunset – tricky light for a man was with one functioning eye – was broken only by a (muffled) shriek of alarm from the back seat as I swerved late to avoid a pheasant skittering across the road, administering an adrenaline rush that instantly snapped the good eye wide open, bcleared the brain cells and caused the right foot to apply instant pressure on the brake pedal. Through my rear view mirror I noted with angry relief that the skittering pheasant, having avoided death beneath my wheels, is already preparing to dare another driver to finish him off by pecking mindlessly at an imaginary seed while slowly retracing his picky-picky steps to and fro across the crown of the road.
Pheasants remind me of the unfortunate refugees (I refuse to call them ‘illegals’ or ‘bogus asylum seekers’) who crowd the flimsiest craft in their desperate attempts to cross the English Channel. Horrifyingly bred to be killed, they flee certain death at the hands of men with itchy trigger fingers and abandon their natural homes for a mindless, panicky journey across that perilous natural barrier. Only for their hope of safe haven somewhere on our side to be quickly dashed by the unwelcoming opprobrium of their adopted roost. Still, better than certain death, perhaps?
It is far from my most popular line of conversation down at the local, perhaps. My friend Phil, known to all at the Red Lion as ‘Farmer Morebottle’ by reason of his unquenchable thirst, occasionally takes his twelve-bore to shooting parties of similar-minded agriculturals to bag a brace or two (of road-hopping pheasants, of course, not Channel-crossing peasants) and I have not the slightest townie’s objection to that, given that I am willing to partake of the spoils. It just means that his quarrey, by which I mean every large piece of wild poultry in Northumberland, must flee for its very life every year in that season between October and February, in the same way as sensible Catholics are forced to lay low during the Ulster Protestants’ archaic annual ‘marching season’ (April to August) and the suffering majority of Middle-Easterners are hounded out of their homelands the year round by warring, murderous militants.
So where was I? (See, I told you I was losing the plot. . .) Ah, yes! I dimly remember Farmer Morebottle and I had a fair old ding-dong following the dominoes in the Red Lion before my wife’s COVID barred me from the company of anything more festive than the TV set. Naturally, I have long since forgotten the issue on which we disagreed; my enfeebled mind fails to hold on to such details for more than an hour after each stoush but it most likely concerned my preference for organic products, a subject which causes my rustic companions unending amusement.
‘Me Against the Mob’ is how I like to characterise such one-sided encounters in which I, the lone political ‘progressive’ in the bar, take on all comers from the fascisti fringe of the farming community. The truth, I suspect, is a little more prosaic: they allow me enough rope to hang myself while mercilessly taking the piss out of me for doing so.
It is a hard lesson to learn and by the time Scott’s taxi drops me off at home the facts are a confused cocktail of over-merry memories. Trust me, I’m a journalist!
Anyway, if it come back to me I’ll tell you next time.
If I haven’t Lost the Plot again, that is. . .