I’ve been asked a few times over the years if I fancied writing my autobiography. But I never felt the time was quite right. A few years ago, a very nice publishing house offered me a more than fair amount of dough for the rights to my life story. They offered it on the proviso I worked with a ghostwriter. A meeting was duly set and I met this rather charming ghostwriter woman at the Bar Italia, in Soho, one sunny morning to see if we could get on.
The publisher told me she was the best-selling ghostwriter around. Over coffee we had a nice chat and she was taking notes, but as the conversation drew on, I noticed her pen hovering motionless between the less juicy bits. I could tell, unsurprisingly, she was searching for the more sensational end of my market. It turned out the reason she was cited as Britain’s most successful ghostwriter was that she’d penned the hugely best-selling David Beckham biography. Well, no disrespect to the great man, or the writer herself, at that time a monkey could have written a bestselling book about old Golden Balls.
Well, for me, what tipped me over the edge into thinking now is the right time was a set of converging circumstances.
On the eve of my fiftieth birthday I was standing on the balcony of an old music hall in Wapping called Wilton’s, one of the last of those great palaces of working-class entertainment, surveying a room full of friends and foes who’d come from all over the world to join me on this auspicious occasion. I was having the party the night before my actual birthday as the venue had already been booked on the night by Marc Almond.
Wilton’s is an amazing place. Just over a century ago the writer and theatre critic Henry Chance Newton said that ‘without its Palaces of Variety and its Music-Halls, living London would only be half alive.’ All of which makes it rather surprising that today just a handful of these places survive. So here I am surveying the scene on the eve of my fiftieth birthday, having a toast to Mr Wilton and his magical music hall, and it’s beautiful just looking round the room. Even my cheapest friends have dressed the part. It’s a room full of Victorian dandies, all top hats and mutton chops and girls of every shape and size bursting out of bodices left, right and indeed centre. And you don’t get many of them to the pound, missus!
The crazed, the lunatics and the thieving toerags had all turned up, and even people who aren’t in Madness. Boom boom. It was brilliant.
Anne (Bette Bright), my lovely wife, much to my surprise, had organised a whole music-hall show. There were sand dancers dressed as Egyptians dancing in hieroglyphic fashion. A burlesque singer, dressed, albeit briefly, as Vera Lynn. A pearly king making a ladder out of a rolled-up newspaper, whilst singing:
Oh it really is a wery pretty garden,
And Chingford to the eastward could be seen,
Wiv a ladder and some glasses, you could see to ’Ackney Marshes,
If it wasn’t for the ’ouses in between.
Lee Thompson, Madness sax player extraordinaire, did a tremendous Max Wall routine. He actually came on the Tube in the full outfit. Clive Langer, Madness producer, and his son Johnny, performed a stirring version of ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’. My two lovely daughters, Scarlett and Viva, in giant nylon bee-hives, came on singing ‘Sisters’.
At the end of this fantastic night a giant birthday cake, I mean huge, was wheeled into the middle of the stage, and bang, out of it leapt this gorgeous woman as a finale to the show. I thought, Phwoah! I’m taking her home tonight. Ooh missus. It was my fiftieth birthday after all. It was my wife, Anne. It was a truly unforgettable night.
So there I was the following morning, on my actual birthday, lying in the bath, amongst the bubbles and ducks, mulling it all over. Feeling somewhat worse for wear but deeply content. Thinking about all them faces I saw at the party. People I grew up with on the council estate. People I went to school with, my family, my two lovely daughters all grown up and moved on, but only to within walking distance of our fridge.
Like a movie of faces floating past. People I’ve known since they were kids, whose lives splintered and fractured in a million different directions. Poets, painters, criminals, fruit and veg wholesalers, record company executives, dealers, dustmen, butchers, gardeners, lawyers, accountants, cocktail waiters, social workers and of course the band. The band Madness.
Mike (Barzo) Barson (Mr B)
Lee (Thommo) Thompson (Kix)
Chris Foreman (Chrissy Boy)
Cathal Smyth (Chas Smash)
Daniel Woodgate (Woody)
Mark Bedford (Bedders)
So many memories attached to each and every one of those faces I’ve known, on and off, down half a century.
When BANG, I hear a terrible crash, and I turn round to see my favourite cat, Mamba, lying motionless on the bathroom floor, surrounded by shards of glass. What’s happened here? Has he been fired through the window?
He looks perfect, there’s no blood coming out. But I sort of know he’s dead, I just can’t believe it. Hold on a minute – the glass shelf above the sink’s gone. Maybe he jumped up on it and it broke. But cats can’t die from a fall of four feet. Cats got nine lives. Cats can fall from eight-storey buildings, I’ve seen it on YouTube. But there he is, lying motionless on the floor. Maybe he just didn’t have time to right himself from such a short fall. Maybe he bashed his head on the sink on the way down.
But I just can’t believe it. My Mamba dead on my fiftieth birthday? The cat that caught eight mice in one day. The cat that saw off the horrible cat from next door that used to come in our house and spray on my shoes. The cat that used to climb up the ivy at the front of the house and knock on the bedroom window when he wanted to come in!
He was my best mate.
I get out of the bath, dripping, and feel his pulse. I feel his chest – he’s definitely getting colder. How can you do this to me, God, on my fiftieth birthday? Now I’m not gonna go on about pets. It’s a bit like people going on about their babies. Mine’s the prettiest, cleverest, etc. . . .
But I did love that cat.
We’re having a load of people around for dinner that night, including my kids. I don’t want to ruin the evening by telling everyone that the cat’s dead, and I’m half hoping he’s not. So I spend the entire night running up and down stairs to the top bathroom in the forlorn hope he’s only been concussed, that somehow he’ll wake up and stroll off. But he doesn’t.
The following morning I break the terrible news. There’s wailing and gnashing of teeth. Real sadness; he was a real character. We follow the usual procedure of trying to find poor old Mamba a vacant plot in the pet cemetery that is our back garden. Amongst the other cats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, the lizard and that goldfish that have come and gone through our house over the decades.
I even get my daughter’s boyfriend round for a bit of moral support. And to help with the digging. He was a big old cat.
He’s buried with all the usual formality, it’s sad, we all loved him. His big brother Voodoo looking down from the roof of the garden shed. After the funeral and a short wake in our local pub I’m off to see my mum. I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to her at the party. I jump in a black cab and direct the driver to Soho. After a couple of minutes the driver turns and says: ‘Here, Suggsy. You all right mate? You look a bit glum.’
‘Well, actually it’s my fiftieth birthday today. I know it’s only a number, but it’s sort of just hit me. I haven’t really thought about it before. Fifty years, half a century of my life, gone!’
‘You don’t want to worry about that, son, I’m fifty-two, look at me.’ He glances in the mirror and carefully runs two fingers through his comb-over quiff, while I take in the back of his fat bald head.
‘Yeah right. Well, to tell you truth it’s not just that. My two lovely daughters have just left home, which has left a big hole in my life.’
‘What! Couldn’t wait to see the back of mine.’ He drives on.
‘Right . . . Well . . . OK . . . What’s really tipped me over the edge, and it might sound a bit stupid, but my cat died this morning.’
There’s an awkward silence. The cab slows and pulls into the kerb, and I hear what distinctly sounds like sobbing, crackling through the intercom.
‘My cat, Bubbles, died last week . . . I know exactly what you mean, mate.’
We get chatting about how I ran up and down stairs to see if Mamba was still alive. He tells me his Bubbles got run over in the street and he had to carry him in the house in a bin bag. And everyone in the street’s asking: ‘What’s in the bin bag?’ And telling me this sets him off again.
He tells me his next-door neighbour’s a vet, and the vet says to him: ‘Are you sure it was dead?’ and he says he thought it was, but he’s buried it now.
The vet says: ‘Well, if you’ve buried it, even if it wasn’t dead, it certainly is now.’
And that’s it. That’s what gets me going. I’m fifty. Life has changed dramatically since the kids left home. They’ve been at the centre of our lives for twenty-five years. I’ve suddenly found I have got time to reflect on my own life, now I’m not so busy with theirs. But it’s Mamba’s sudden death that’s really done it. He’s buried now.
Fate and chance, never knowing what’s round the corner. My whole life has been directed by so many quirks of fate, chance encounters that could have led me down so many different paths. It was often that close. That close to people, that close to success, that close to disaster.
We were that close, it was scary,
We were that close, I couldn’t tell you.
Ready for love, we were that close,
To getting it right, or crashing and burning.
Skidding on the surface, with the brake jammed down,
Slow motion sliding, head-on . . . we were that close.
Remember them summer days, when we took whatever came our way,
Getaway, hey, but not too far, took a spin round in your broken-down car,
No one else could know, what we done and seen,
No one else could see, it’s all a hazy dream.
I spent quite a lot of time on my own as a kid, being an only child of a single parent. Mum worked long hours in the clubs of Soho. And I got used to, and still enjoy, my own company. When I first met the rest of the band, in my teens, they were all very independent characters. A number of whom shared a similar background. A group of very strong-minded individuals. A band of loners. Joining the band and rehearsing in Mike’s bedroom in Crouch End of an evening, was, for me, a great alternative to running round the streets causing trouble.
I am often asked why I think it is that Madness are still as popular thirty-odd years on and, apart from the obvious fact that we had a lot of hits, I think it’s because we have always ploughed our own furrow and have rarely, if at all, been in fashion. That gave us an independence from the fickle business of show. And given that in the early days there’d be ten or more of us and our friends, often a lot more, on the road together, we could create our own crazy world, style and sound, which for some peculiar reason still resonates today. And I honestly feel that amongst all of our great achievements, the greatest is that we are still friends today.
Well, eyes down, boys and girls, here goes. After a few half-hearted attempts over the past few years, what is left of my befuddled memory is now down in black and white. Of course I have written before, and have always enjoyed writing, it was one of the few things I was any good at, at school. In fact, apart from art, the only thing I was any good at.
I’ve written another book, about London, called Suggs and the City, and jolly good it is too, but I did that with a lot of help from the people who worked with me on the Disappearing London TV series.
And of course I’ve written songs, loads of them.
Writing a good song isn’t easy, by any means, but the discipline is completely different. You’re more often than not collaborating with other people, and to be perfectly frank if you get a couple of good lines for a song, real good ones, it’s a productive day.
But this book-writing lark is quite a different fish. Hours and hours in front of a laptop, and if like me you have the brain of a deranged butterfly, it’s more than a small challenge.
Trawling through the backwaters, searching through the under-growth (amongst the used condoms and syringes of life). To the furthest corners of my unruly mind, for a minute nugget of info that may unlock another long-forgotten anecdote and help in the almost impossible task of trying to piece together the mostly unfathomable nonsense of my life.
I’m very grateful for my life, for many reasons, not least the opportunities it has given me to meet some of the most incredible characters. Without whom I would be as naught. And to be honest it’s not all there, maybe I’m not all there, and factually it may not be completely correct, but I do hope that these snapshots give you some sense of how Graham McPherson became Suggs.
To infinity and (one step) beyond!
Excerpted from That Close by Suggs. Copyright © 2013 by Graham McPherson.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus Editions, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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