Minor work wastes good Major material
MEMOIR: My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall, By John Major, Harper Press, 363pp, £20.
When John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher as Conservative prime minister of Britain from 1990 to 1997, he was so nondescript that the Spitting Image puppeteers created him in 50 shades of grey.
He spoke in a dull, strangulated drone, and there was about him an air of haplessness and ineffectuality. He was widely thought not to be really up to the job.
Then the stories about his background began to trickle in. And John Major’s home life turned out to be wonderfully strange: the monochrome man of politics had once been the boy who ran away from the circus to become an accountant. Then, just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, garden gnomes came into the picture.
His father, Tom Major Ball, aged 64 when John was born, in 1943, had been for many years a slapstick entertainer in the music halls, in partnership with his first wife, Kitty, as “Drum and Major”. The pair were usually near the bottom of the bill, nevertheless they appeared with great stars of the day: Marie Lloyd, Hetty King, Lupino Lane, Nellie Wallace, Florrie Forde, Harry Champion and the rest.
According to some sources he fathered at least five children with four different mothers over a 42-year period: the journalist Terry Major Ball; the dancer Mary Moss’s son Tom F Moss; and daughters Patricia Dessoy and Kathleen Lemon, as well as John. (Kathleen is not mentioned in My Old Man.)
When the music halls closed down and he found himself without clowning work, Major Ball started a company manufacturing garden gnomes. In the 1950s that business failed; Major Ball and his second wife, Gwen (John’s mother), lost their family home and moved to a ramshackle house in Brixton owned by a man John knew as Uncle Tom but who proved to be Moss, John’s half-brother though 40 years his senior. Moss, a fine tenor in the Josef Locke tradition, had spent years on the halls, on bills with big names such as George Formby. And he in turn had a half-sister (no relation to John), the variety comedian Jill Summers, who ended up playing blue-rinsed battleaxe Phyllis Pearce in Coronation Street.
I met Tom F Moss once, when I was sent to do a story many years ago at Brinsworth House, a retirement home for performers at Twickenham. (In 1906 Tom Major Ball and Kitty had been founder members of the Variety Artists Federation, the charity that administered Brinsworth.) Moss was quite a character, refreshingly different to the rest of the placid old-timers there; a wheezing, snaggle-toothed old fellow with a drinker’s nose and gravelly Lancashire accent, happy in himself although he conceded he had made some big mistakes. He blamed “booze and women” for the way his life had turned out. No mention was made of his half-brother John, then climbing the ranks of the Young Conservatives.