If you can conjure a working class, smart and savvy Bertie Wooster, then you can conjure Danny Baker. Sure it’s hard to do (perhaps only the man himself can really pull it off) but his autobiography makes the task much easier. As ever with The Candyman, the mosaic of anecdotes, jokes and “rib-tickling plays on words” leaves little for us other than to sit back and raise a chuckle, a skeptical eyebrow and (occasionally) one’s entire self up to applaud the sheer brio of the man.
His idyllic inner-city childhood, stacked as high as a 70s Fine Fare’s baked beans display with dangers, poor role models and the exhilaration of innocence treasured then swiftly foregone, overflows with details of dreadful delights. Here our man describing his best friend’s Maltese father – “Smoking roll-ups the circumference of an ant’s leg, he would throw his arms wide and jabber at us kids about urgent world events as though he had stumbled across us playing chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg”. There’s classic Baker right there – the Wodehousean simile, the perfectly chosen verb jabber, and the startling geographical and cultural shift from a Bermondsey estate to the lee of the Eiffel Tower. How he’ll hate the Ph.D theses that will, if they haven’t already, cite his work.
Baker’s father dominates these early years (and later years too, if less insistently). Something of a whirlwind that could blow good or ill, he was a docker, a ducker and diver and a dream to be on the right side of. There’s plenty of the self-sufficiency of working class life built on mores forged in the war(s) resulting in the shared (though never codified in religion, law or (especially) regulations) mysterious sense of right and wrong. Petty fraud, backhanders and bunce oiled the wheels of an economy that everyone had an interest in preserving – except the growing ranks of those for whom order was as strong a drug as disorder was for the likes of Baker (père et fils) and plenty more on “the estate”. Fans of our man’s radio work will be familiar with some of the stories, but how could anyone tire of the antics of the Bakers’ dog, who would surely have been a more natural TV personality than even its loving master. For all the joy bouncing out of the text, there’s some darkness too – regrets about incidents at school in which he was associated, if not complicit, and (later) impatience with the bone-headed nihilism of a punk rock audience.
As you could do in the 70s, Baker simply walked out of school before sitting any exams, in order to seek his fortune by (essentially) being Danny Baker. Already having mastered the art of knowing enough to know when to reveal that one is knowing and when to withhold such information (extremely useful for a working class lad mixing it with middle class girls and gays), he inherits a job in the hippest of record shops whose customers include those who would be described these days as ITK and stars (and superstars) of the explosion of British musical talent between Woodstock and Westwood (Vivienne). Surrounded (and trusted) by a gay subculture, he learned the invaluable lesson of running multiple personalities for different situations, and how intensely attractive it was to girls in the 70s (and in the 80s too, believe me) to hint at a little gayness in one’s own make-up, despite its total absence. He effected a tour-de-force in becoming “David Essex’s brother” as a time when such a connection was a very hard currency in the dating market.
From there, it’s on to music fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue and the NME where his smart-arsery fitted, even if his disenchantment with punk and instant dismissal of worthy intellectualism didn’t. I read NME cover to cover about that time and can still recall treatise like Paul Morley’s on The Police but I also loved the silly stories (many simply made up by Baker to amuse himself and the other writers) and the dazzling captions and headlines (at over thirty years distance, “Are Trends Eclectic?” above a review of Tubeway Army’s first hit has the stamp of Baker all over it and is still brilliant). There are tales of being on the road with Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Darts and Sham 69 and (of course) the famous encounter with Michael Jackson before, just as London Weekend Television hoves into view with wheelbarrows of cash for you guessed it, being Danny Baker, the book finishes. There’s one allusion to “the next book”, so we’ll have to wait for the telly, the radio and the football, of which there is almost nothing in this volume, but we’ll probably wait in vain for the chemo – which is how it should be.
With expectations high (how I would love to have Baker’s knowledge of popular culture, his command of language and fearless self-assurance in the value of a working class upbringing – in fact, I do have all that, just not to that extent) – Going to Sea in a Sieve is just a tinge disappointing. Sure it’s full of laugh lines and wit, but there’s little really new for Baker’s hordes of devotees. His father is portrayed in glorious technicolor, but many other characters who would surely benefit from the Baker treatment, are somewhat skated over, cast too quickly as walk-ons in the biopic. It’s not the man’s style to stick the knife in and I wasn’t expecting an Angeresque “Bermondsey Babylon”, but I’d happily have read a slab of 532 pages, if we could have had double the word count on Nick Kent, Kosmo Vinyl and dozens more who come and go so quickly on and off the page.
No doubt some will be irritated by the writer’s disregard for the hypocrisy of typically English self-effacement (though he does reveal more insecurities than I expected) and others will bridle, flinging the book down with a “Well, it’s all right for you to say that” indignation at his attitude to the acquisition and disposal of money, but, as became evident when he announced his cancer, Baker is, whether he likes it or not, a national treasure.
I’ll be buying Volume II the moment it’s published.