Only When I Laugh
By Paul Merton
344pp, Ebury Press, £20
Born in 1957, Paul Merton is exactly the same age as the children in Michael Apted’s Seven Up! series of documentaries that began in 1964. He first saw the second programme, Seven Plus Seven, in an O level sociology lesson and watched it again aged 30, when almost famous, in an independent cinema in Sydney. On both occasions he was deeply affected by how the working-class Eastenders just wanted to live in a “nice and comfy” house or work in Woolworth’s, while those from the fee-paying day schools had their sights aimed dead-straight at Oxbridge and beyond. No wonder Apted’s series, with its lesson that children learn social scripts early on and that these can be more inhibiting than material disadvantages, stuck in Merton’s head. For as this autobiography relates, it was very nearly his story as well.
Merton wanted to be a comedian from the moment when, at the open-air theatre in Fulham’s Bishops Park, he and his dad spotted an off-duty clown walking through the crowd with a telltale smear of greasepaint behind his ear. But, growing up in Morden, the last stop on the tube on which his dad worked as a train driver, he felt locked out of the usual routes of university revue and BBC radio (and, presumably, joining the circus). His sole encounter with show business was reading, in Morden Library, the small ads in The Stage for “Winola and her Syncopated Snakes” and “Victor Buffoon – Rib Tickler to Royalty”. He worshipped the comedy writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson partly because they came from the same working-class south London streets, and so seemed to map out an unlikely career trajectory.
The running joke in Have I Got News For You about Merton’s ungraded CSE in metalwork is here told straight. He was part of the first comprehensive intake at Wimbledon College, a former grammar school, and, in anticipation of the hordes of south London Bash Street Kids they did not want, the Jesuits essentially built them an alternative school, a modern complex away from the main building with a state-of-the-art metalwork classroom. Those, like Merton, who wanted to do French rather than metalwork had to take a test in the subject, which they naturally failed, never having studied it before. When he heard Merton’s loud laugh in the common room, one of the grammar-school boys approached him and said, “It’s scum like you that gives this place a bad name.” The sixth-form master’s careers advice amounted to giving the 16-year-old Paul Martin a leaflet: “If I were … a Shelf-Filler.”
The most compelling section of Merton’s book deals with the limbo years of his late teens and early twenties, which he spent in Tooting Employment Office and then on the dole. In his box-bedroom-sized Streatham bedsit with a single bed, where he survived on porridge and fish-paste sandwiches, a gauche, lonely and rudderless Merton seems to have gone slightly bonkers. On one occasion he sat on a park bench in Hyde Park from 5.45am every morning for a week in the hope of spotting Michael Crawford, who was appearing in the West End and had told an interviewer that he jogged through the park. Merton’s other exploits in this period included climbing on to the Morden Hall Road roundabout and lighting a campfire in the shrubbery and, drunk on cider, jumping on to the line at South Wimbledon tube station and walking into the tunnel, narrowly avoiding the live wire.
Merton’s deliverance, although he did not know it at the time, was the opening of the Comedy Store above a Soho strip club in May 1979. He is amusing on the strange acts who thrived in this hospitable habitat, none weirder than the expressionist clown Andrew Bailey, aka Podomovski, who held a large pane of magnifying glass in front of his head and made guttural noises with the mic fully in his mouth. At a stroke, Merton points out, this venue loosened the hold of Oxbridge and the TV and radio commissioners and introduced something new to the comedy scene: democracy. He does not mention that this new ecological niche was also especially welcoming to his own style of comedy: deadpan, off-the-cuff, reactive, full of jarring interruptions and synaptic leaps. It is one of the paradoxes of Merton’s career that he is such an earnest scholar of the mechanics of carefully-crafted visual and written comedy – as a boy, collecting super 8mm silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and projecting them on to a bedsheet hung on his bedroom wall – but his own extraordinary talents are best deployed as a virtuoso of winging it.
The book’s central episode feels less fresh because Merton has already mined it for material in his act and in interviews: the breakdown he suffered in 1990, the first symptom of which was his inability to stay in his chair for the opening shot of Whose Line is it Anyway? Merton is clear that this episode, which culminated in a six-week stay at the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital, was a one-off, caused by a reaction to the anti-malarial tablets he took before a trip to Kenya. There is no reason to doubt this, but the preceding account of his erratic journey through the 1980s does give the impression of someone driven almost mad by not having a vehicle for his peculiar talents – and then made manic by suddenly being on the verge of fulfilling them.
Merton has not gone the way of other life-writing comedians in trying to tell his stand-up routine on the page, and his book is mostly the better for it. His prose style is no more than serviceable, with some slightly Pooterish asides into postwar British cultural history – “The LP with its much larger size enjoyed a higher status than the CD initially” – and there is none of the simulated indignation and mock bewilderment that has turned his panel-show appearances into an art form. Here, compelled to deliver a monologue, without being able to throw a well-timed grenade into other people’s trains of thought, he tends to literalise and over-explain.
But even told without many laughs, Merton’s story is worth reading. His book reminded me a little of Alan Johnson’s This Boy in the similar sense it conveys, without any self-pity or special pleading, of being ignored by his elders and betters who neither know nor care how clever and gifted he is, and then of waste and drift as he scrabbles round to find other outlets for his talents. His account of his subsequent success, far from being triumphant, feels tinged with a residual feeling of being unentitled to it. In an interview with this newspaper three years ago, Merton recalled that in his early twenties he had wished he was the kind of person who read the Guardian, before realising belatedly that there was nothing stopping him. “So much of the working-class thing is about thinking you’re not allowed to do stuff,” he said then – a statement which could also be taken as the keynote of this thoughtful, understated memoir.