Monday, March 19, 2007

Byron Rogers and Prince Charles' large hands

Byron Rogers' The Last Human Cannonball: And Other Small Journeys in Search of Great Men was released in 2004, and finally I've found a copy, in a second hand bookshop (reduced from £12.99 to 99p).

Some reviewers have described Rogers as an excavator of odd people and places: this is true enough, but I'd prefer to call him a dowser of peculiarity. He seems magnetically drawn to the eccentric, the monomaniacal, the unsung witness, the fabulous real-life story. Then, after a while, you refine your opinion of him: Rogers could interview the most boring person on this planet and turn him or her into an object of lyrically rendered fascination. He is one of those rare writer-journalist magicians super-alert to the indicators of inner drive, of telling detail: he is a reminder that dullness most often resides in the blinkered viewer not the viewed.

In Human Cannonball - beautifully produced by Aurum - consider a few of Rogers' subjects: Cynthia Payne, Mick Jagger, David Hicks, Burt Lancaster, Claudia Schiffer. Not all his quarry are celebs. The best piece in this collection is titled Mrs Hitler's Diaries - a tale so slyly crafted as to read like an urban myth. And yet there really was a Mrs Brigid Hitler, the Irish-born sister-in-law of the German Fuhrer, sometime wife of Hitler's bigamous brother Alois, resident of Liverpool. She wrote her autobiography (unfinished) and Rogers cherry-picks his way through it, his piece climaxing in a tragic-comic encounter in the early '30s between Adolf himself - before he became Chancellor - and his British nephew William Patrick. Uncle Adolf was most concerned that his promising political career should not be brought down by the embarrassing family in Blighty - it's pure psychotic soap theatre.

Rogers underplays this fantastic tale for the duration: all that's required is a hint of incredulity, a light wry aside. And he delivers.

When he does encounter an authentic bore, Rogers deftly uncoils the rope for the subject's self-hanging. This is done spectacularly with David Hicks, Earl Mountbatten's exquisite son-in-law, who approached Rogers to write his biography. After a short scene-setter, Rogers lets Hicks do all the talking - and what converts the interminable, egotistic ramble into horribly compelling farce is the knowledge that Rogers subsequently sent a transcript of the monologue (insolently unedited) to Hicks as the specimen chapter of the proposed biography. Needless to say, Rogers didn't get the gig.

In Rogers' company familiar faces live again in the mind's eye. On Burt Lancaster: "It is a brutal face ... with Lancaster you feel the energy pounding out of the face, and with age the menace in it has become more pronounced, the pale eyes sunken. In the shadows of the bar the great jaw muscles seemed to belong to some earlier stage in human evolution."

It's a little known fact that Rogers used to be Prince Charles' speechwriter - I once asked him to tell me something about the heir to the throne. "All I can tell you," he replied, "is that Charles has huge hands - massive. That's all I can remember about him."

You see, Byron has a mind only for the interesting detail.


Anonymous said...

< Rogers could interview the most boring person on this planet and turn him or her into an object of lyrically rendered. >

All the opposite of what is happening out here more often than not. :-)

Susan Hill said...

Prince Charles`s hands are not particularly big.

Arcati said...

Thank you Susan - I wouldn't know, but on TV they look beefy and worked, like his mother's. Perhaps Nivea might be useful.

As to the ubiquitous anonymous above, it would appear quite a few people find this site intolerable and yet are condemned to return to it.