You must never be ashamed to admit that you don’t believe half of my stories. Life in the celebrity vacuum is unreal and it will often be unlike anything you’ve experienced in your everyday lives. After all, how many have you ever watched Stephen Fry fire a flaming arrow into a 300 page manuscript soaked in petrol and pushed out onto a beaver-infested lake, complete with a dam built from the half-chewed remains of the ‘This Morning’ map?
More than the fame which accompanies them, a certain degree of rewriting also goes on when I set my fingers to type my stories. Like any author working on his own biography, I can choose to elaborate upon the truth or omit a compromising detail. What is left, however, is as close an approximation to reality as any political diary or celebrity memoir picked from a bookshop’s shelf. Take yesterday as a perfect example. You might not believe what I’m about to tell you but the following is a page ripped from the book of verisimilitude. It positively bulges with fact. In other words: this is pretty much exactly as it happened. I really couldn't make this up.
Oversleeping is usually a good indication that I’m about to have a bad day. Other clues involve discovering the Madeley zipper stuck at 10%, the loss of a vital piece of equipment (which is always likely when my fly is at 10%), verbal misunderstandings with Canadians, or any incident that involves a person of diminutive stature. Yesterday, in one way or another, I lived through all five, and yet the day didn’t turn out too bad.
Sleeping through my alarm clock's histrionics happens too often when I stay in Manchester. Rooms in cheap hotels hardly encourage you to lift your eyelids at six o’clock in the morning. From the deepest slumbers where all things are made of Feltz, I am suddenly thrown into the grey business-end of an economy-class Bunkhouse Dreary. Only an insomniac sadist would deny me the right to roll over and bury my face in my pillow for another fifteen minutes.
Yet having missed many appointments this way, I have devised many redundant systems to ensure that I don't sleep till noon. Judy's elbow is usually in the first line of that defence. The last is the travel alarm which I leave in the bathtub. In a good cast-iron tub, the sound from that little beauty gets focussed into a funnel of noise that can peel the wallpaper from the ceiling, disable communications satellites and neuter low flying pigeons.
I imagine a few of Manchester’s pigeons grabbed for their valuables at 7.15 yesterday morning. Three seconds later, I stumbled back from the bathroom and began to thread my ankles into my trousers. I was relieved to see my knees follow and I breathed a sigh of relief once my belt gave my narrow hips a squeeze. A quick brush of the teeth, a dab of gel on the old mop, and I was then running around my hotel room to pack my bags and pick up all the machinery vital to living in a city far from a woman called Judy. My Bluetooth enabled headphones, mobile phone, notebook, pen, Army issued switchblade, Oddie-licensed duck call, hygienically cured ear trumpet, eye drops, flint and steel for making a fire, and a length of waxed string. It was all there.
Except for my mp3 player which had mysteriously gone missing.
The last time I remembered using it was when I was trying to get to sleep the previous night. Mozart could never have imagined how well his 'Magic Flute' could drown out the sound of the Ladyboys of Bangkok whose show was taking place in the car park across the road from my hotel room. As I began to search for my mp3 player in the sheets of the bed, I begin to vaguely remember throwing it across the room in the middle of the night.
Without music to calm me, the city becomes a hostile environment. I spent fifteen minutes searching for the player before I had to give it up as lost. By then I was woefully late for the office. I endured a tram journey into the city centre that was memorable only for the endless tannoy announcements, chatter of passengers, the noise of traffic... I suffered the full 'humanity experience' and when I jumped off the tram, I then had to endure the insults of builders who made comments about the state of my zip which I had left semi-elevated.
It was what is known as an arse of a morning, or what we in Channel 4 like to call a ‘Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’.
Work on ‘Eye of the Storm 2’ went relatively well and by four o'clock, I was finished for another week and I left to catch the Virgin Pendolino back down south. Luckily, we’d already recorded Thursday’s 'Richard&Judy Show' so I had no reason to get back early. However, to preserve the illusion that the show is live, Channel 4 executives demand that I remain in disguise whenever I’m in public during the hours of 4.30 and 6.15PM.
I made the train in plenty of time but I was disappointed to discover that my seat was the airline type whose front was to the back of the one in front. My mp3 player still lost, I had to settle myself in a cramped seat for a two hour journey. The only consolation was that it would be heavy with Graham Greene. I had picked up a copy of ‘The Heart of the Matter’ after hearing Amis talk about it the other night. When the train began to move, I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with Greene’s voice. I spread out my legs into the well of the vacant seat next to me and I sank back expecting bliss.
And that’s when a late arriving passenger appeared at my side and began to push a large suitcase into my leg space. I was about to say something when I looked up. Only I didn’t have to raise my chin very far. For this was a nanus or a small person.
Like many of the small people I’ve known in my life, he was extremely well dressed and, as I would soon discover, unerringly polite and extremely intelligent. His black flat cap looked rather fetching against the tan of his waistcoat and his face radiated a smile. I radiated back.
He pushed his luggage further into the well of the seat and I tried to move my legs out of the way.
He smiled again but this time with the recognition that he was putting me to some trouble.
‘You’ve got very long legs,’ he said in a thick Canadian accent.
I didn’t know how to reply. Life has a habit of forcing me into these situations when I risk being too quick witted for my own good. Situations that any normal person would consider unreal are, to me, everyday. A Canadian dwarf was commenting on the size of my legs. And how did I feel? I felt terribly hurt.
‘Must you always go on about my height?’ I scolded him. ‘“Oh, isn’t he tall? Look how big he is!” I know what you’re thinking. Always chattering among yourselves and thinking I can’t hear you. Well I can hear you. I see the looks on all your faces. And I have feelings too. I’m a human being, for God’s sake...’
Humour is always the best way to build bridges. Even little bridges with low hand rails.
The man laughed and I knew at once that we’d be fine. He sat down (though ‘down’ was more of a ‘clamber up’) and we began to talk. It turned out that he was a rep for a large Korean electronics company and had finished a trade show in Manchester where he’d been demonstrating their latest products. He showed me the catalogue from his bag and I mentioned that I’d been up in the city to see the James Wood / Martin Amis lecture. He said he was sad to have missed it.
‘Mind you,’ he added. ‘I’ll be glad to get home.’
‘Really?’ I asked. ‘And why’s that?’
‘It’s those goddamn Ladyboys,’ he replied. ‘I’ve not had a wink of sleep all week. I tried to change rooms but the hotel said they were fully booked.’
I gave a snort of derision. It seems that I wasn’t the only man in Manchester to have suffered from the vocal warbling of Thailand’s finest female impersonators. ‘You too? I’ve had exactly the same problem. An utterly miserable weekend which only got worse this morning when I lost my new Bluetooth mp3 player.’
He winced. He obviously knew what it’s like to lose a Bluetooth connection.
‘I couldn’t take it anymore,’ said my friend. ‘If I had to listen to one more chorus of “My Shlong On The Mekong” I might have lost every inch of my postmodern liberal sensibility and told them a few home truths about gender identity...’
‘Ooh,’ I said. ‘You can’t say that...’
‘Don’t worry,’ he replied. ‘I can say that. I was actually born a woman.’
I looked at his in utter astonishment. 'Really? That's amazing.'
‘Got you!’ he said, bursting out into laughter.
I smiled but felt rather uncomfortable, not knowing how to take the humor of a politically incorrect nanus.
It turned out that Eric – for that was my new friend’s name – had been staying in the same Sheraton Of The Ever So Noisy as I had slept in the night before and that the problem of inebriated Ladyboys singing late into the night was the perfect subject to bring two strangers together on a long train journey. We chatted for an hour or so and once the express passed Birmingham and left the North, I began to savour the aroma of the south. That’s when I thought it time to reveal myself to my small friend.
‘Eric,’ I said, ‘I want you to prepare yourself for a shock.’
He looked at me. ‘You’re not a ladyboy?’ he laughed.
‘Better than that,’ I said, ripping off my fake nose and comedy pimple. ‘I’m actually Richard Madeley!’
He gasped, a small terrified yelp of a gasp. Pocket-sized surprise.
‘And who is Richard Madeley, exactly?’ he asked.
‘Oh, I’m quite big in the UK. My wife and I have our own show on Channel 4. If you weren’t leaving the country, we’d have had you on. Show your products to the nation...’
‘So you’re in TV?’ he said. His eyes had filled with the usual Gods-come-down-from-Mount-Olympus look of excitement. ‘That’s great because I have a fantastic idea for a TV game show.’
‘I doubt if you do,’ I told him. ‘You wouldn’t believe how many times I’m told about the next big idea but do you know how many are ever made?’
‘No idea,’ he said.
‘Nearly all of them. So fire away, little buddy of mine.’
He took a deep breath and puffed out his cheeks. ‘Barrel-O-Monkeys,’ he said.
I paused. I nodded. It had the advantage of being one I’ve never heard before.
Eric explained. ‘Back in Canada, it's very popular with the kids. It's an old game with plastic monkeys in a barrel. You have to try to pick them out using a fishing hook.’
‘I can’t quite see how you’re giving this a unique televisual twist, Eric,’ I told him, trying to let him down as gently as I could. ‘TV is about spectacle and, no offence intended, I don’t think watching a small chap like yourself hooking plastic monkeys from a barrel with a fishing rod is going to bring in much of an audience. It might work on ITV3, of course, but who would really want that audience?’
‘Ah but Richard,’ he replies, ‘what if we use real monkeys?’
Damn it! The dwarf had a point but the conductor was already announcing our imminent arrival at Euston. I knew I had to act quickly. I gave Eric my card.
‘You’ve got an amazing talent there, Eric,’ I said. ‘This Barrel-O-Monkeys idea might be a winner. When you come back to England, you must look me up.’
His brows narrowed. ‘That some sort of joke?’
I bit my lip.
He smiled. ‘Got you!’ he said and pointed at me.
And hadn’t he just? Again...
'Why...' I began but he waved me back.
‘Here,’ he said, reaching into his bag. ‘Take this to replace the one you lost.’
And with that he handed me a brand new mp3 player. A model not yet on the market and only slightly soiled by handling on a trade show floor.
‘I couldn’t take your only sample,’ I said as I stuffed it under my shirt.
‘Remember, Dick,’ he said. ‘Barrel-O-Monkeys...'
'It’s a sure winner,’ I said as we both stood up to leave.
He seeme unhappy to see me go but I had to rush since Judy would be waiting for me in the car park. Eric waved and waved back as I walked down to the end of the train. And there in Euston I left behind the one person you would always want to sit next to on a long train journey from Manchester. Witty, wise, a great instinct for TV, and he left me plenty of leg room.