Bought for the Coronation, our first TV
had a nine inch screen. It stood in a corner
of the front room. My grandmother, who
had outlived two husbands, two World Wars,
and once had tea with Buffalo Bill,
thought that those appearing on ‘the box’
could see those watching, so was discerning
about whom she chose to watch, and when.
She particularly liked ‘What’s My Line?’, an import
from America, in which a panel
of four TV ‘personalities’ guessed
what a range of guests did for a living.
It was broadcast early Sunday evenings.
An hour before she would heat her curling tongs
in the small range in the kitchen. The house
would fill suddenly with the smell of singed hair.
Her favourite panellist – she thought him ‘refined’ –
was Gilbert Harding: a choleric,
Cambridge graduate; a poorhouse orphan,
prematurely middle aged; a good
BBC voice with the proper vowels,
a hint of tobacco. The Corporation
kept his secret, when ‘the love that dare not
speaks its name’ risked penal servitude.
Outed by the tabloids ‘as the rudest man
in Britain’, he was recognised in the street.
He described himself as a ‘tele-phoney’,
and recounted a journey on the Tube
from Russell Square to Oxford Circus
when he was pointed out, and fêted,
while, at the other end of the carriage,
T.S. Eliot was ignored. Old Possum,
another smoker, feared ‘the television
habit’, thought the word itself ‘ugly
because of foreignness or ill-breeding’.
Eliot, a confused anti-Semite,
and Groucho Marx were mutual fans.
As the latter might have said to the former
on the one occasion they ate together,
‘Tom, just because you’re a genius,’
flicking cigar ash, raising an eyebrow,
‘doesn’t mean you’re not also a schmendrick!’.
Harding lived for many years in Brighton,
whose bus company named a bus after him –
i.e. ‘bus’ as in short for ‘omnibus’.
My grandmother filled part of my childhood
with tales of her girlhood in Liverpool
from some sixty years before: the bloody
sectarian skirmishes; the frequent
prophecies of the end of days; the hulks
beached and rusting on the Cast Iron Shore
at the bottom of her steep street; and the boy
next door gone to America, and lost.
I can still recall his name six decades on –
and many decades since he sailed to Boston –
Johnny Flaws, Johnny Flaws.