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Authors: Gordon Burn

Alma Cogan

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Alma Cogan

A Novel


For Tom Baker, 1964–1988
And for Carol Gorner


Alma Cogan
was born in Golders Green, London,
on 19 May 1932.
She died on 26 October 1966.


With the exception of those persons appearing as well-known personalities under their own names, albeit often in fictitious circumstances, all other characters do not bear any relationship to living characters and any resemblance to living persons is wholly accidental.


I always found having my picture taken with members of the public a frankly grim and, in the end, even a distressing experience.

The terrible conviviality and the unwelcome physical intimacy with total strangers of course was part of it.

Personal hygiene wasn’t high on everybody’s list of priorities in those days (it couldn’t be: we’re talking about the early fifties, barely a decade after the war, when plentiful hot water and unclogged fibres were still regarded as luxuries).

The women pressed close smelling of dandruff, candlewick, camphor and powdered milk, thinly disguised by a ‘top-note’, as the perfume manufacturers put it, of ‘Evening in Paris’ or Coty ‘L’Aimant’ or some other cheerful, rapidly evaporating technicolour stink from Woolworth’s.

Despite the fact that they were wearing their ‘best’ clothes, the men gave off stomach-heaving waves of dog and diesel, boot dubbin, battery fluid, pigeon-feed, dried cuttle-fish, cooked breakfasts, rough tobacco, week-old hair oil and belched-back beer. They were odours that I unwillingly but instinctively associated with scenes of domestic mayhem – children scalded, wives abused, small dogs dropped from high windows – and of the time when the scraps of paper being so urgently thrust forward for my signature would be found curled up in the back of some sideboard drawer or dust-lined wallet.

(Starting out, I was given the following advice on how to deal with fan mail by Max Miller: ‘Stick them all in a sack until it’s full.’ he said. He was relieving himself in a handbasin at the time, talking to me over his shoulder. ‘It makes a bloody good fire. How many people are you going to offend? Not more than a quarter of a million.’)

They weren’t monsters. They could be sweet, the fans. But they were ruthless. They wanted to be your best friend. The hands that reached out to take your elbow, or encircle your wrist, or that clamped themselves damply to your waist in order to position you for the viewfinder, said as much. ‘Alma this’ and ‘Alma that’. All that pawing. They were all over you like a cheap suit, if you let them.

What did it for me, though, the thing I found truly unnerving – it used to make me feel vertiginous, bilious – had only a little to do with how they smelled and a lot to do with how they felt. No matter how casual, placid, sober, offhand or unimpressed these people looked, they were all, almost without exception, when you got close to them, men and women, throbbing and pounding and exploding inside; inwardly erupting.

You’d place your hand on a broad shoulder, if only in an effort to stay upright in the scrum, and find that under its cardboard-like jacket the shoulder fluttered like a small bird, quivered like a fish. Chests palpitated and knees knocked as if in some secret spasm of sexual excitement. The most casual contact with head or arm or buttock or thigh revealed a level of activity – flesh jerking and dancing, jitterbugging about, sinews rippling like wind in a curtain – that I could never completely come to terms with. Outwardly, these people appeared as simple and stolid as pillar boxes or lamp standards. Norman and Norma Normal. Inwardly, though, they twanged like tram wires, boiled and bubbled like kitchen geysers.

Not, of course, that I was very much different. Look at those pictures now and what would you see? Not a woman whose sinuses squealed and whose breastbone ached from heaving up, as she always heaved up, before having to go out and sing. But Alma Cogan, the glamorous radio, television and recording personality, surrounded by her adoring public.

The difference was, ‘Alma Cogan’ was a confection. That was accepted. (At least I thought it was.) Giving autographs and being photographed with fans after a performance was an extension of the job. You were still up. You were still ‘on’. I was
to perform; to be at once aloof and accessible; glamorous and homely; to give value.

‘Enduring the bizarre projections of others’ somebody once said was one of the penalties of fame. But that was okay. I was prepared for that.

What I couldn’t handle and, as I’ve said, eventually came to dread, were those shivering, shaking bodies hanging around waiting to put themselves next to mine out in the dark every night. I was terrorised by the instant access that being well-known seemed to give me to the complexed, mysterious interior lives of complete strangers – people whose settled, unrippled surfaces, their bodies told me, concealed echoing chasms, recesses, sumps, and unpredictable underwater currents; a whole uncharted subaqueous existence.

This was some years before the events in Dallas. And I never really expected a Jack Ruby to step out of the crowd one day and do for me the way he did for Oswald. But I began to speculate on the histories – and futures – of the people I was asked to pose with outside theatres, at civic receptions and during PAs at factories and shops.

You were supposed to evolve a technique for those semi-public situations when you were in that strange limbo-land: half your projected public image and half your private self. The idea was to switch off, glaze over, go through the motions, head up, shoulders back, and don’t forget to smile, etcetera. Just corpse it. But I couldn’t do that.

Beneath the veneer of professional nonchalance, I was actually extra-alert. Him, for example, the one with the slim-Jim tie and the cap pushed to the back of his head: did he seem a potential GBH-merchant/child-molester/wife-murderer/gang-rapist? And her, the one in the angora sweater and the milky lens in her glasses: did she seem the victim type? Which, if any, of these faces would one day rise to notoriety and have a name put to it? Would this picture – ‘Move in a bit closer, Alma, she won’t bite’ – could this be the one that the hack doorstepping the unfortunates on the receiving end of some as yet unknown outrage or disaster would
slip out of the family album and bury in his mackintosh pocket?

What is it they say? ‘Fire lies hidden in wood.’ Well that’s the sort of thing I’m reaching towards here. That puts in a nutshell the sort of potentials, the devious dark energies I began to suspect in people.

Up until the night of the events I am about to describe, however, I hadn’t, to the best of my recollection, been the object of or even witnessed any overt act of violence.

I was twenty-two in the summer of 1954 and my success was still new enough to want to get it out and drive it round the block every so often just to gauge the reaction.

I had had my first chart successes earlier that year and would travel to London on several Sundays during my first seaside summer season to record the songs which would turn out to be some of my biggest hits. In the next year and a half I’d register in the high-seventies on the ‘reaction index’ with the public. That put me up there with the likes of Denis Compton, Gilbert Harding, Archie Andrews, Lady Docker and the younger royals, and way ahead of, for example, Rab Butler and the Home Secretary of the day, David Maxwell-Fyfe (a long way ahead of him).

It was all just starting for me in 1954 and I’d wake up every morning and immediately experience the rich ache of anticipation: what good new thing was going to happen for me today? I felt it as a constriction in the throat, a slow orbital turning of the stomach.

The season had just four more performances, two more nights to run. The leaves were already dropping. It was the end of one of the happiest extended periods I could remember.

Fourteen weeks was a long time to spend bumper-to-bumper with a single group of people. But it had been a friendly company, with no more than the usual quota of drunks and lechers and only the usual run-of-the-mill tantrums, back-biting and bellyaching. I’d rented a comfortable villa close to the town but well off the tourist route and had been given a dressing-room with a window from which there was a sheer drop to the sea.

The theatre was on the end of the North Pier and the dressing-room was in a rear corner of the theatre. We performed every night on a stage which rested on tarred timbers, bearded in green and scabbed with shells, which were apparently sunk into the sea-bed. This was, and remains, a source of mystery to me.

I could hear the sea gurgling and sucking around the timbers every night as I dressed and prepared to go on. Sometimes it did more than that: it blatted and slapped, and pasted gobs of slime against the windows. But I remember it as a mild summer, with nothing very dramatic in the way of weather.

That July, rationing came to an end: housewives burned their ration books in Trafalgar Square and comedians everywhere started scrabbling round for new material. It was the first summer for many years that shop signs and neon lights were turned on. Standing at the window as I changed, I could see lines of coloured lights strung out around the bay and, behind them, the pulses and scribbles of neon from the cafés and arcades. When you stepped backwards into the room, the colours looked kaleidoscopic beyond the salt frosting.

Three months earlier, I’d been hypnotised by all this. But it wasn’t the best preparation for going out to sing the jaunty crowd-pleasers and up-beat novelty numbers for which I was becoming famous, and so I canned it. I closed the curtains at the end of the first-house when the sky was starting to reflect pink in the water and kept them closed until it was time to leave.

That next-to-last night, though, which was going to be celebrated with a party in the town afterwards, it seemed appropriate to indulge a mood that went with the yellowed good-luck telegrams that would soon have to be unpinned from the wall, and the outpouring of sentiment which was the traditional accompaniment to these occasions. That night, we’d all write things like ‘It’s been fabulous knowing you’ and ‘Great to have worked with you again!!’ and ‘From one hobo to another – hope to see you around again sometime somewhere’, knowing that the likely destination of these messages, though no doubt heartfelt at the time, was the toilet bowl and the incinerator.

In order to get into the mood, I turned down the sound monitor which kept me in touch with what was happening on-stage – although by this time I hardly needed it: ‘It wasn’t a question of keeping the wolf away from the door so much as getting the bloody thing out of the house,’ the second-spot comic was saying as I put my finger on the button, meaning it was about ten to nine – and drew back the curtains to have a look at the view.

It was still there. And, together with the sea, whose surface that night looked as if it had been gone over with a varnishing comb – there were eddies gathered like knots on the flat surface and long, grainy striations – it was still powerfully melancholic. But, like a song that used to blow you away and now merely sets your fingers tapping, it no longer struck me as anything to write home about. The old bone-chilling thrill was gone. It was a view which already belonged to nostalgia rather than the present.


Stan, one of the band boys (he later became my MD and accompanist), had volunteered to walk me to the party. We waited until after eleven and then stepped outside to brave the usual suspects and what had turned into a gusty, autumnal night.

I hesitated on the top step under the bare lightbulb to give them an eyeful – I was wearing a fitted suit (‘figure-hugging’, as the tame pen performers for the papers who’d already written me up invariably described it – this was also my interview uniform), an Arctic-fox fur with a faint, unusual purple cast, and starburst ear-rings.

The cleaner in the glass-walled sun lounge directly opposite the stage-door stopped what she was doing long enough to clock me; but the fishermen on the end of the pier continued baiting their lines or stood with their eyes firmly fixed on the horizon: I could see their dense, concentrated silhouettes against the pale pool of moonlight on the water.

I’d spent months when I was younger practising my signature. That was my only hobby in adolescence: autograph practice. The arrival of the ball-point gave my technique a great push forward. It was the difference between the old put-put planes and jet
travel. Now there was no resistance or drag, the pen flew over the page leaving a trail of loops and flourishes in which I could only just make out the elements of my own name. Even now, thirty-plus years later, I have to consciously scale down the action and remember that all I’m doing is writing a cheque or taking delivery of something from somebody who probably wasn’t born at the time I’m talking about.

It was surprising, the things you could be asked to sign in those days. The trays from cigarette packets and the backs of match-boxes obviously. But also rent books, dole books, business cards, blouses, packets of nylon stockings, paper bags from Skardon’s Fish Buffet, still warm and smelling of vinegar, even – occasionally – bare skin.

A young scaffolder or warp-dresser from the mills once asked me to sign an autograph on his upper arm which he said he was going to have ‘needled up’ into a tattoo. It was a cold night, I think in Leeds or Bradford, but he stripped down to his singlet in the street while a small crowd cheered him on.

He made a fist and held his arm out straight, then turned his head away while I signed the tough cushion of muscle, as if he was a small boy being given a school inoculation.

He reappeared a year or two later and hauled his sleeve up to show me the blue-green inks of the finished job. ‘The man police would like to question has a marked Yorkshire accent and a tattooed autograph of Alma Cogan on his left tricep …’ That was my first thought.

But then he pulled the back of his shirt out of his trousers to reveal a gallery of even more distinguishing features: four eagles in varying postures, a garland of roses, a peacock, a geisha girl, a selection of hearts, anchors, satyrs, the winged cap of Mercury, a cigar-smoking skull in a top hat, and the legends

But it’s a thought to conjure with all the same: somebody going to their grave with your now flabby signature still inscribed 
of an inch into their person.

BOOK: Alma Cogan
4.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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