Howard Ja­cob­son

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The Guardian - Weekend - - Starters Contents - Howard Ja­cob­son

Did I read that Bruce Forsyth was a shy boy? And that it was singing and danc­ing that gave him con­fi­dence? It’s not im­pos­si­ble, even though you can find pic­tures on­line of him singing and danc­ing in his crib. It’s part of the mythol­ogy of the fa­mous that their early days are in­aus­pi­cious. To be in­ter­est­ingly rich, you have to start poor. If you are funny, you need to have been tragic. If you are a show-off, you must once have been a shrink­ing vi­o­let. Cher was shy. Ditto Joan Rivers and Robin Wil­liams. Bren­dan O’Car­roll, who plays Mrs Brown, would no doubt tell you he is shy still.

How do I know these things? I have kept my ear to the ground. As a shy boy my­self, I fol­lowed the tra­jec­to­ries of other shy peo­ple with in­tense in­ter­est. If they could break out and make some­thing of their lives, then maybe I could, too.

It has taken me a while to re­alise that the ugly duck­ling be­com­ing a swan, or the cater­pil­lar turn­ing into a but­ter­fly, are mis­ap­plied metaphors for the shy child trans­formed into a su­per­star. I be­lieve now that the shy re­main for­ever shy, but some­how in­cor­po­rate their dif­fi­dence into their per­for­mance; em­ploy it as a source of en­ergy; maybe coax that mys­te­ri­ous qual­ity we call charisma out of it. To be cre­ative is to keep one’s con­tra­dic­tions in har­ness. And aren’t the most-loved per­form­ers those who let their weak­ness show be­neath their strength?

Only this will ex­plain how it is pos­si­ble to seek ex­po­sure and con­ceal­ment si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Re­mem­ber Milly For­rest, the cloak­room at­ten­dant re­cently “plucked from the side­lines” to sing at the Wig­more Hall af­ter the so­prano rang in sick? As a boy, I would imag­ine be­ing in the au­di­ence at the Royal Opera House when Jussi Björ­ling took ill and the cry went out for a re­place­ment. “Any­one know the words to Nes­sun Dorma?” Up would go my hand. “I do, I do. I know the tune, any­way.”

So ha­bit­ual was this fan­tasy that I couldn’t at­tend a play, a recital, a pan­tomime, even, with­out won­der­ing if that were to be the night they’d need me. But that which I de­sired, I dreaded just as much. The con­cert halls and opera houses I found ex­hil­a­rat­ing also ter­ri­fied me. What if Arthur Askey picked me out and made jokes at my ex­pense? What if Dame Myra Hess hauled me up on to the stage to turn her mu­sic? Even at the bal­let I didn’t feel safe.

And so I cow­ered, as in­deed I still cower, con­spic­u­ously. Just so they know, if they do be­lat­edly want me for Tu­ran­dot, or Les Syl­phides, come to that, I’ll be hid­ing in the back row of the stalls, shield­ing my face.

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