IMG_1886If you mourn the passing of anyone close to you, and especially if they died relatively young, that anniversary and the days leading up to it are likely to feel tense. While life has to go on, the tension between ‘carrying on regardless’ and ‘reflecting’ means there are a few dates in the calendar which one will always dread.

August is a difficult time for the London-born author and poet Joanne Limburg. In August 2008, when she was in the middle of writing her excellent memoir, The Woman Who Thought Too Much, about her experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder (both pre- and post-diagnosis), her younger brother Julian, a scientist living in the USA, took his own life. Now Joanne has written a second memoir: in Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations, she describes the impact of that tragedy with great sensitivity and care, as well as a capacity for emotional detail and depth. Small Pieces movingly pinballs across the years, either side of the tragedy, and lays bare the effects on her and the surviving members of her family and his, too. It encapsulates that feeling that, in whatever circumstances you lost a family member, it chimes with all the regrets you continue to carry around: if only I could have done something, if only I’d said that, if only I hadn’t said that.

In the summer of 2010, I left a full-time office job and opted for freelance life. Although I was still living in London then, and continued to do so for a couple of years, I wanted to see more of my family in Wales. I now had a nephew, my mum was still very active (as she continues to be), but I especially felt that I hadn’t seen as much of my younger brother as I’d have liked. Indeed, there had been about 10 years between our mid-twenties and mid-thirties where sightings of the two of us had been pretty rare. In my newfound self-employment I wanted to make up for lost time, and visit Wales more often. I especially thought that, as the two of us got older, we’d have more opportunity to see each other. We’d had a somewhat stormy relationship as children, but despite – perhaps even because of – the distance between us as adults, we had come to accept and respect our differences.

Then, on 2 August 2011, while I happened to be already staying with my mum, he visited, sat us down and told us that unfortunately, he had secondary cancer, this time a number of brain tumours, and he was about to begin radiotherapy and, subsequently, chemotherapy. He requested two things of us at this stage: firstly, that we must stay positive, and secondly, that on no account were we to research his sort of condition on the Internet. I never did the latter – though some time later, I read Tom Lubbock’s eye-opening and completely devastating Until Further Notice I Am Alive, which answered a number of questions I had been pondering. As for staying positive, I could really only do that while I was with my family. Privately, in my own head, my mourning process had already begun. Whether his end was days or years away, I was already aware there was an end approaching. We all know, abstractedly, that there’s an end for all of us, but here I knew it was coming. August the second was the beginning of all this.

When he told us, others went to pieces while I remained strangely, bizarrely calm. I somehow not only acted positive, but felt positive too. After all, he’d run marathons, was super-fit and was about to pass his maths GCSE with an A-star. If anyone could get through this, surely he could. But within a few days, I’d slumped into a gloom. I’d decided to stay a week longer at my mum’s house, and I vividly remember the ghastly Friday night that week when, perhaps dizzy with the oncoming crisis, we begged television to entertain us or at least distract us. Somehow we found ourselves staring like zombies at a panel game hosted by Chris Moyles. Now, there are those of you who may wonder if there is any other way to experience a panel game hosted by Chris Moyles, but we kept watching, perhaps out of spite, perhaps out of the same kind of spite that the panel game hosted by Chris Moyles was subjecting us to. It was agony, a kind of existential prison: we couldn’t or perhaps wouldn’t reach for the remote, possibly because to turn the TV off might mean we’d have to talk about what we were facing. And neither of us felt able to do that. A couple of days later, I returned to my home in south London, a city where riots had broken out in a few areas, and I decided to watch rolling news on the subject almost as a form of deranged escapism.

My brother’s decline would be swift. I could reel off all the significant dates as my visits grew longer and more frequent: first and last radiotherapy sessions, the last family birthday, the last proper conversation, the first and what turned out to be the last chemotherapy session, the last phone call, the last exchange, the last last encounter. At the time, I continued the positivity entirely for his sake and those around him and me. And then each time I’d go back to London and explode with horror and rage and sorrow, on the grounds that at least this way he wouldn’t be able to hear or see me do it.

He died not in August but November. Yet I mourn 2 August as deeply as the day he died, for it all stems from that.

Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces talks a lot about the limitations of memoir: frequently you can’t speak for other people. Everyone grieves and reacts differently, and for reasons of courtesy, confidentiality and just sheer mystery, there will always be gaps in our stories. She explores how one squares up our feelings with those of the people who remain. It is an account packed with insight and imagination into not just bereavement but of family, childhood and identity (specifically, in Joanne’s case, her Jewishness). It also wonders whether the object of your grief is gone or not-gone. Because whether or not we believe in a god or an afterlife, we can’t help but believe in the maddening but seductive and helpful power of memory. It is why, for both Joanne and I, in our different but sometimes similar ways, Augusts will always be tense months.

Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces: A Series of Lamentations is published by Atlantic Books, as is her equally great account of OCD, The Woman Who Thought Too Much. Her brother’s death also inspired a series of poems in her collection, The Autistic Alice, published by Bloodaxe Books. Further information at




File_000(6)Andrew O’Hagan’s new book, The Secret Life, consists of three essays. The first of them, ‘Ghosting’, is itself about the process of writing, and his experience of trying to ghostwrite Julian Assange’s autobiography for Canongate Books, only to find that Assange cannot or will not commit to writing or exposing his real thoughts and feelings, who long ago gave up any professional and objective integrity for self-absorption and a studied cult of personality. Leaving aside everything else about Assange (and there is a lot of everything else about Assange), I keep picturing him as a man who spends a lot of his time staring in the mirror, stroking his hair while fantasising about being interviewed. ‘That was the big secret with him,’ writes O’Hagan at one point, ‘He wanted to cover up everything about himself except his fame.’

On Monday, I went to see Andrew O’Hagan speak about this new book at the London Review of Books Bookshop. Just minutes before the talk began, I learned of the death of a man who – while very famous in his day – never seemed to want to hog the limelight for its own sake. Brian Cant, truly I would say, was a hero to millions of us children who watched television between the 1960s and 1980s. On long-running programmes like Play School and Play Away, Brian – it would feel wrongly impersonal to refer to him by surname – felt like your television dad. With an eternal twinkle in his eye, he was the warmest, most generous and reassuring of TV entertainers.

There were some people on television in those days – we all know who – whom we felt we had to tolerate, mostly down to lack of other options. You never imagined Brian could be one of these bumptious, drunk-with-fame screen obstacles. Nor did he ever seem trapped by children’s television. In later years, when fleetingly interviewed, he expressed only gratitude and love. But it feels a shame that his full story remains mostly untold.

As I mentioned in last week’s blogpost, very little children’s TV was on offer in the 1960s and 1970s, and what there was existed in isolation. Often it was a single programme, a lifeline, a tiny island in an ocean of closedowns, interludes and testcards. Brian was often an inhabitant on these islands: Play School in the mid-morning on BBC2; Play Away the only children’s programme on Saturday afternoon while other channels broadcast hours of sport; lunchtime broadcasts for pre-schoolers, entertainment lasting just fifteen extremely precious minutes. In those latter lunchtime slots, Brian’s voice accompanied the action of Gordon Murray’s trilogy of stop-frame animated series, all set in the fictional county of Trumptonshire: Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton itself (1967) and finally Chigley (1969). It was disappointing to hear on Radio 4’s Last Word this week that Brian was reportedly only paid a flat fee for his original voiceovers, and did not receive any royalties for their many repeats.

Brian began to fade from children’s TV in the mid-1980s – his last remaining link, Bric-A-Brac (1980–82), in which he played a shop owner who only stocked items beginning with the same initial letter, was repeated until 1987. Thereafter my encounters with Brian became sparser but each one was a delight, nonetheless. I reacted with surprise to his cameo in the final episode of the Esmonde & Larbey sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (1989), having almost forgotten he was primarily an actor. (As well as a lot of theatre, his many TV acting credits also included Doctor Who, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars.)

I never really saw Dappledown Farm, Brian’s subsequent breakfast TV series for young children, but his self-parodic narrations of ‘The Organ Gang’ on Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s This Morning With Richard Not Judy in 1998 were hilarious. ‘The Organ Gang’ was a consciously cheap cartoon about a cast of disembodied innards with faces (Barry Bladder, Beryl Brain, Lily Liver) – imagine a cross between Mr Benn, The Munch Bunch and indeed Camberwick Green. I enjoyed the way Brian gamely pretended to express apathy and even annoyance with the formulaic, threadbare scripts: in the last episode, he couldn’t even be bothered to sing the theme tune properly. I hope he enjoyed doing them, because his infectious sense of fun was still very much in evidence.

And then a few months later, early 1999, I heard the track ‘Fish’ by the artist and DJ called Mr Scruff on Chris Morris’s late-night Radio 1 series Blue Jam. It sampled Brian’s voice from two different sources, both records I had been given when very young. One came from the Camberwick Green story album, just straight transfers of Brian’s narration and Freddie Phillips’ music from the TV series, and it was specifically from a story where Windy Miller went fishing. The other, which took me a little longer to identify, familiar as it was, came from a 1972 compilation album of Play School stories, an item called ‘All the Fish in the Sea’, written by Janet Lynch-Watson, and told by Brian and co-presenter Carole Ward:

CW: ‘Why should it be that the fish in the sea are all unable to sing?

BC: ‘Just listen to me, young fellow/What need is there for fish to sing, when I can roar and bellow?

These were my first records, my first awareness (apart from books) of on-demand entertainment, to be played again and again, whenever I liked. Until I was doing research for this piece, I had not listened to the Play School record in many years. The last time I had played it was in 1980, when I was ten, and really much too old to be listening to it – but by then I had started buying pop singles and even albums for myself, and I played it knowing full well that I was about to bid farewell to something.

I last heard Brian Cant on Radio 4’s The Reunion in 2010, reminiscing about Play School itself. Most of his memories seemed to be less about him than his happy experiences with fellow presenters and encounters with the public who loved him. It just enhanced all the affection for this gentle, dignified, generous but fun-loving chap. It would be nice to think that a proper BBC tribute is being planned; I suspect generations of viewers would welcome it.

Brian Cant died on 19 June 2017, aged eighty-three. It would be fantastic if I could link to a
Brian Cant at the BBC DVD here. Make it happen, someone.

Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life is published by Faber & Faber.





blog-diary-mockup-150117It is strange to read of a time when, technically, you really were alive, yet remember nothing about it. I often wonder why no-one can consciously recall their early life. Perhaps it’s because, as infants, we are so busily absorbing the basics – of feeding, bathing, dressing, our surroundings, understanding and then adopting vocabulary and meaning – that there is no capacity in our mind to record even seismic events. We are so enthralled by the present that there is no space to look back. I can barely remember a thing before the spring of 1974, when I turned four years old, and so to read of 1971, in daily vivid detail, is disconcerting. I was in the world, after all. But what was I doing?

Sarah Shaw’s 1971 is wonderfully brought to life in her book, Portland Place: Secret Diary of a BBC Secretary, published last summer. It dutifully records every single day of her professional and personal life that year. She began the year aged nineteen, working at the BBC’s Schools Broadcasting Council at the Langham Hotel building. At the time, the BBC had just begun to experiment with sex education programmes on television and radio for primary school children, and it is startling to read some of the complaints and reactions that the SBC received. It feels like prehistoric times, and the kind of sexual politics that Sarah encounters often reflect that too.

Meanwhile, she writes about her own romantic education, after meeting an Irish lift attendant called Frank, who is much, much older and married. With empathy and humour, it nails the obsessive thought processes of what happens when you meet someone special, and details all the strategies of how far to go, like a chess game. It’s about falling in love, then out of love and back in again, at times even wondering if it’s love at all.

What gives Portland Place an edge over ‘celebrity diaries’ lies in its fearless openness, which stems from the teenage Shaw’s assumption that these contents of these entries would never be shared. When Alan Bennett and Michael Palin write their entertaining, thoughtful diary entries, deep down they know that this stuff will eventually connect with a wider public. There are no ‘Had lunch with Cleese at the Ivy’ entries in Shaw’s story, and though a TV personality or two brushes past, these are cameos that are barely at extras level. This is not a book about celebrities.

For most of 1971, Sarah lives in a hostel close to London’s Victoria station. She goes to see films and plays, listens to music, writes her own songs and plays the guitar, reads avidly, socialises with colleagues, and sometimes returns to suburbia at weekends to see her family. Even so, at times not much happens, and she describes watching Morecambe and Wise on TV with such relief that it reminds you how unforgiving and drab a Sunday could be in those days. Furthermore, when an entry appears like ‘My challenge today was to find out the date for Good Friday in 1973,’ it hammers home how tough it was to research something Wikipedia could clear up today in five seconds.

Meanwhile, the lift of the Langham acts as a secret compartment for her life with Frank. It is the starting point for their adventures, and offers them a freedom of sorts. On Monday 9 August she writes:

‘Is life like a lift? We are on ground floor when we are born, and reach the top floor when we die, and in between we go up and down at different speeds, stopping at different floors.’

It’s a striking observation. But the lift is also a metaphor for a confined space, and sooner or later, one she must escape from. (Fortunately, Shaw does reveal in two postscript chapters what did happen next.)

I have rarely kept a diary. I used to joke that there was no point; I can eerily recall to the exact date when something happened. I even once tried writing a diary in retrospect, trying to remember the content of each day of 1988. I can’t bring myself to tell you what that was like to revisit years later. But reader, I shredded it. With relief.

One’s diary is not an act of memory until you re-read it; writing a diary is about a near-instant reaction. These days I sporadically write a journal, for the downside of not writing about one’s life isn’t that events go unrecorded. It’s that they remind you of how you thought, and even more crucially, how you felt. I definitely had a squeamishness about emotions when younger, and had I bothered to keep a diary for when I was nineteen (1989–90), it would make for painful, lonely and needy reading: stumbling around university on an unsuitable course, longing for friendship and romance, but mainly hiding in the arts library reading back copies of The Listener, or shuddering in bed. That year felt like being in a trap: stifling and dangerous, but aware that admitting defeat and leaving would feel like regressing. So you stuck at it, somehow.

It is almost miraculous that Portland Place’s raw material survives at all. Sarah Shaw had never written a book before, and she only found the diary when clearing out her attic. It’s not just a compelling, novelistic account of someone’s life as an independent young woman, but it’s packed with detail, subtlety and humour. I’d like to read more by her.

Sarah Shaw’s Portland Place: Secret Diary of a BBC Secretary is published by Constable. Sarah Shaw also has an excellent blog, which you can find here.