Cotswold Character: At home with Hunter Davies
PUBLISHED: 09:24 06 February 2017 | UPDATED: 09:32 06 February 2017
Hunter Davies, author, journalist, broadcaster and the only authorised biographer of the Beatles, has written the first part of his memoirs: The Co-op’s Got Bananas! Katie Jarvis looks extensively around his house
Even the directions to Hunter Davies’s house are entertaining.
“Take the fifth left at the church,” they say, “looking out for Julian Barnes hanging about.”
I do a couple of circuits, just in case, but there’s not so much as a Flaubert’s parrot.
“Cross a little crossroads; then note on the right – at number 26 – the home of Ed Miliband.”
I try to peer in as discreetly (but thoroughly) as I can; it seems as if the lights are on but nobody’s in.
“Opposite, Benedict Cumberbatch is moving in.”
I’m not absolutely sure which house this refers to. I should be able to deduce, I guess, from subtle clues: the missing roof-tile; the unexpected garden plant; the hordes of middle-aged women throwing underwear at the door.
(Later, when I’ve put in a formal complaint to Hunter about the no-shows, he defends himself robustly. “The house opposite, with the black boarding up: that’s the Cumberbatches’. Did you see where the builders were working on it?”
“You weren’t specific with the number.”
“But I did say words to the effect that the builders are in. And there’s only one house with builders in.”
“I think you said he was ‘about to move in’.”
“Ah – that’s true. But in my head that means he’s knocking it into shape.”)
The disadvantage of passing through so distinguished an area is that it probably wouldn’t take much to be arrested for loitering with intent. As I’m extraordinarily early, I nip into a café for a while.
(“How did you know it was my local café?” he asks, when I mention it later.
“I didn’t. I didn’t mean your specific local. I just meant it was local to you.”
“It is my local café. I go there alternate days. I also go to the one at the bus stop. It’s brilliant; it’s only £2.20 there.”)
I’ve only just met Hunter Davies. I’m only with him for an hour. But it doesn’t feel like that. It really doesn’t feel like that.
Hunter Davies greets me at the door of his home with the warmest of hugs.
“Come in!” he says. “Milk and sugar or not?”
I’m charmed. Instantly charmed. Though I’ve been pre-charmed, too. His latest book – The Co-op’s Got Bananas! – has captivated me before I’ve even met the man. It’s his memoir of growing up in the post-war North, from his birth in January 1936 (not that he can remember much of that), through to 1960, when he married the novelist-to-be, Margaret Forster (they’d have been quite happy just to live together, apart from the fact that ‘Jesus would not like it’, as Margaret’s mother, Lily, pointed out). 1960: when he was first ensconced in London as a journalist on the Sunday Graphic which was owned - along with the Sunday Times – by Roy Thomson: an inoffensive tabloid mildly surprised to find itself on Fleet Street.
(Hunter’s book is stuffed with anecdotes, including how Thomson was known for being ‘canny with his pennies’. On one occasion, a photographer threw some small change into a gutter where he knew Thomson would alight from his Rolls. ‘Sure enough, as Roy got out, despite his bad eyesight and heavy specs, he managed to spot the pennies and bent down to pick them up. Good trick. Snap, snap.’)
There’s no show-off-iness whatsoever about Hunter Davies; but I laughed, as I read. Because it’s like a non-fiction version of Boyd’s Any Human Heart (know it?), where the lead character bumps into just about every famous person sharing the same timeline.
Admittedly, in Hunter’s first week on the paper, he’s sent to observe the effect of new road markings in Surrey. But shortly afterwards, he’s off to Heathrow (by bus) to ambush Frank Sinatra (he misses him – things do get better). And in no time, he’s meeting stars such as Bob Hope, Benny Goodman, Jayne Mansfield and Julie Andrews. He accompanies his boss, Terence Feely, to Fanny Cradock’s house, where she cooks them a meal and speaks in a voice ‘so posh you felt it must be a fake’. The experience is only muted by the far-too-late-realisation that Terence had been expecting Hunter to make notes and write it all up.
There are Cotswold connections, as you ask. Margaret was at Oxford; Hunter hitched down from his university in Durham, regularly to see her.
“One evening, in her room in Somerville - that Margaret Thatcher had had previously - we suddenly realised it was 8pm and male visitors had to be out of the college at six,” he tells me. “In fact, at Durham, there was one ‘female’ college called St Mary’s where, if you had a boy for tea, you had to put your bed in the corridor.
“I had overstayed my time by two hours - nothing untoward had happened. This was 1957 and sex was not invented until 1963, when the Beatles’ first LP came out.”
After some quick thinking, Hunter rolled his trousers up, put on (his) Margaret’s college scarf – “She’d stupidly bought one, even though everyone knew they were naff” – donned his girlfriend’s raincoat and breezed through the porter’s lodge. Only when he was in the safety of an alleyway off the Woodstock Road, did he unravel his female guise.
“Then I realised there was a couple kissing goodnight, and I could see him looking at my legs. What I didn’t know was that he was editor of Cherwell, the Oxford student newspaper. He did a story the next day about someone escaping from Somerville dressed as a man. He got Margaret’s name and flogged the story to the Daily Sketch. She was up before the principal and was gated for the rest of the term.”
Oh – and the meal after their wedding (to which they’d only invited their two witnesses) was at the Bear at Woodstock, followed by snaps in a friend’s parents’ back garden. And – later in life – they owned a second home in Banbury.
I’m just saying. In case you really feel you need Cotswold connections.
“Excuse me doing this but I’ve lost my phone. I have a mobile phone but it’s immobile. And do listen out for the doorbell! It will be Nigel, my oldest daughter’s partner, who is bringing me my evening meal.”
“Am I going to be in your way?”
“No. I want to show you the house. I want to show you round… Do you want to see round?”
“It would be nice but it feels a bit forward.”
“Let’s go. So this is the main room.”
“I love your books.”
“Keep your ears open for the doorbell. You’re not a football fan, are you? The bathroom is full of football memorabilia. And these are my Beatles photographs.”
We’re standing looking at black-and-white images, climbing their way up a wall over the stairs. Amazing photos; photos I’d sell my granny for.
“When I did the biography in 19-whatever [The Beatles, 1968, the only authorised biography of the Fab Four], Ringo did one, two, three, four original, unique photo-sessions purely for the book. Photographs he took himself. Are you a Beatles fan?”
Is the Pope from Argentina?
“What’s the dog called?” he asks, testing me, as we stare at a huge shaggy sheepdog.
“That’s really unfair: I can’t think that quickly.”
“He named a song after her.”
“Don’t tell me…!”
“That’s Paul’s dog, and that’s Jane to whom he was engaged. I rang Ringo and he couldn’t find…”
“Martha! It was Martha!”
“Yes, well done! …couldn’t find the negatives and these are the only prints. Obviously, they’ve been copied elsewhere. And that’s me and Margaret – my late wife – when Paul came to stay with us on holiday in Portugal.”
“And is that the Quarrymen?”
“Yes, that’s how it all began. This [photograph is taken] the very day; an hour before John met Paul. It was the church fete at Woolton and he meets Paul, who comes to listen to them. And these are his friends who were in the Quarrymen. I had somebody come from Liverpool, not long ago, who told me that boy there – this is 1958 – is the father of Paula Radcliffe. Isn’t that amazing!”
And then there’s the Fab Four on a train with Hunter, off to see the Maharishi, in Bangor, Wales, along with Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. “And some local photographer, in the – here we are - the Chester Observer, long gone, photographed us through the window.
“And the best photographs – one, two, three by Astrid Kerchner in Hamburg. Have you recorded that? Well done.”
“What did you think of the Maharishi?”
“Conman, I thought.”
I’m here to interview Hunter Davies. I’ve got loads of questions to ask him.
“Where are you from?” he begins, as we sit in his dining room, me with a special cup he’s given me. “How long have you been a journalist? What did you do after university?” he probes.
Once, on a plane coming back from Madeira, he interviewed every single person, starting at the back and working his way forwards. Everybody answered his questions apart from one man, who turned out to be a Queen’s Messenger banned from idle talk.
Eventually, I’m forced gently to point out that I am actually here to interview him.
And I’ve loads to ask him.
What particularly fascinated me about this first volume of his memoirs is not just the personal stuff, but the social history. The fact that his dad suffered from MS from his early 40s, quickly degenerating to the point of being bedridden in the front parlour, a room previously reserved for special occasions. The piano was removed and a divan bed installed, and: ‘This was how he remained during all of my secondary school years.’
How incredible to think that Hunter’s mother, with four children to bring up, had no help at all. No help lifting him; no help washing him; possibly not even much financial assistance.
“I don’t know how my mother survived; I don’t know how she did it,” he tells me. “And my dad got so bad-tempered, throwing his food around. That was awful. Yet mum was always so cheerful. Always saying, ‘Bags of money!’, and she had no money at all.
“If I had any posh girlfriends arriving, she would let them into our horrible council house, in which all the curtain rails had clothes drying on them, like my sisters’ underclothes. I was so embarrassed if anybody came to the house, because we were all in one room; there was only one fire.”
It’s this kind of vignette – a window into a different age – that makes the book particularly compulsive. He’s interesting on the war, too. Such as the news that the Co-op suddenly had bananas in, much to everyone’s delight: “I think we were allowed three per family. Our mother chopped them up, and I kept my little slice for the next day to make my siblings jealous. But, during the war itself, we’d had parsnips, which my mother had mashed and told us were bananas. When we got the real thing, I thought they weren’t half as good as the parsnips.”
On one of the very days he was writing The Co-op – back in the summer of 2015 - the Queen hit the news for all the wrong reasons. Family cine-film from 1933 had been discovered of the royal children doing Nazi salutes. General outrage ensued, fuelled by the Sun: Their Royal Heilnesses, shrieked the headline.
The incident led to an explanatory paragraph in the book; about how Nazi salutes had been satirical, back in the day. A cheap laugh.
“We all did it! And we sang songs about Hitler and made jokes about him. It was a party-piece because, until the war was over, you didn’t know about the Jews; you didn’t know about the concentration camps. He was just a baddie who was our enemy. That was it; just another baddie.”
In many ways, I think, Hunter’s was a difficult childhood. Yet he says in the book that he’d have called it a happy one.
“I’d say so. Because everybody in our estate was in a council house. Nobody had a car; nobody had a telephone; nobody had a television. They had dads that worked which, for most of my childhood, my dad didn’t; but they weren’t well off and they were all working in the same place, which was the MU [RAF maintenance units]. Have you ever heard of MUs. Where did you grow up?”
Oh, my gosh. Have I written up this interview wrongly? Should I have spent less time chatting, and more on other things? Such as how he first met Yoko, before the Beatles even did, when she phoned him as ‘London’s premier columnist’ and asked him to appear in a film about people bearing their bottoms.
“I said ‘Piss off’ because I was sure it was a friend from the Observer putting on a funny voice to wind me up.”
Six months later, he walked into Abbey Road, “And there she was, sitting with John Lennon, intertwined, with the three other Beatles going, ‘Who the f*** is this?’”
Or, indeed, perhaps I should have made room for more about his incredible wife, Margaret, who died from cancer in February 2016, after time in a Marie Curie hospice.
“This is my dear wife’s office,” he says, as we continue our tour, “which I still haven’t cleared out yet; not through being morbid or mournful. She’s left 90 pages of a manuscript…
“And,” he points, “the stairs go on up to a flat at the top, which I’m letting somebody from the hospice have for free - except the rotten council wouldn’t let me put a door in here.
“When I was there, there was one day when there were four beds free, and I said to the main consultant, ‘I can’t believe you’ve got four empty beds – people must be dying to come into this hospice’. Joke. So he wearily smiled and said, ‘Yes, we can get the caring staff; we can get the doctors; what we can’t get is nurses. Because nurses can’t afford to live in London.’”
It’s not just that I’ve run out of room; it’s that I want an excuse to go back, maybe when the second volume of his memoirs is out later this year. Not just to touch Paul McCartney’s swimming trunks, which I did (he left them behind after the Portugal trip); or to look at the reams of books; or the paintings; or the letters Hunter has, written by Beatrix Potter; or the autograph of every Prime Minister since Walpole.
No. It’s to be given the ‘special’ cup for my coffee once again. To help search for the mobile phone. To meet Nigel, properly, when he delivers the nightly tea. And to be, for a simple second or two, part of Hunter Davies’s life.
“Oh my god, more messages. This one’s from my son. You don’t mind me doing this? It’s jolly rude. Just look around the house. Carry on. Look around.”
The Co-Op’s Got Bananas, A Memoir of Growing Up in the Post-War North, by Hunter Davies, is published in hardback by Simon & Schuster UK, price £16.99