Picking through the sad, mundane lives of celebrities

I Was Douglas Adams’s Flatmate
Andrew McGibbon
Faber and Faber, €14.50 Kindle: €8

DOUGLAS ADAMS, Ernest Hemingway, Tina Turner, Sam Peckinpah and Morrissey. At first the link between them is less than obvious.

Are they all left-handed? Are they all adopted? Or maybe they’re dyslexic? All of them appear in Andrew McGibbon’s compilation of other people’s close encounters with famous folk. And there we have the answer.

Douglas and Tina and Sam and Ernest are all world famous. It was obvious all along.

Our love affair with celebrity continues unabated and McGibbon’s book is a symptom of just how lovesick we have become. We’re not content with just reading the autobiographies of film stars or rock musicians, we want to know what they’re really like. Do they pick their noses? Do they get their round in? What did they get up to at college?

To gain this important information we must go further than biographers, ghost writers or psychiatrists. The people with this information are ‘normal’ people who managed the enviable feat of living or working with a famous person.

Comedy writer Jon Canter rented a house with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams. Jon certainly has more to offer the Adams fan than anecdotes of passing him in the hallway or proofreading first drafts. Jon was Adams’s friend. Once, the pair went on holidays to Corfu and Adams lost his towel. This eventually became a huge in-joke in the Hitchhiker universe. Adams also asked Jon if he could use part of one of his monologues for Marvin the Paranoid Android (“Life? Don‘t talk to me about life!”) Interesting? Yes. Insightful? No. If you want to know his favourite TV shows or how he behaved when his love life was on the rocks, his flatmate can tell you.

But if you want to know how he dreamed up a bizarre and brilliant universe and managed to get it all down on paper, Jon Canter may as well have been on Ursa Minor Beta.

Elsewhere, there are flashes of personality and great swathes of momentous occasions. There’s a tailor called Manuel who sends Johnny Cash nine suits, all of them black. Cash rings him up, perplexed. Manuel tells him they will go perfectly with his sinister stage presence. “Well, I guess I’m going to try it for a while,” said Cash.

Les Dawson’s gag writer reveals how his boss was a very nice man; Sam Peckinpah’s personal assistant tells us how her boss wasn’t.

In 2004, Dublin-born Valerie Danby-Smith wrote a memoir, called Running With Bulls, about her time with Ernest Hemingway. In this book she retells of her time as the writer’s secretary. However, her conversation reveals more about her journey from Irish poverty to Spanish fiestas than dispelling any myths about Hemingway.

Andrew McGibbon himself knows a thing or two about rubbing shoulders with famous people. He played drums on nine of Morrissey’s chart-topping hits. In fairness, he understands that his book cannot provide stunning insights about celebrities. His own review is “just a glimpse of harmless private moments”. This is true, but we come away knowing much about people we never knew and not much more about the people we think we know.

Yes, our love affair with celebrity continues.


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