The Christian O’Connell Breakfast Show on Absolute Radio: Absolutely fatuous

What happened to the drinks sideboard as a item of furniture; the mighty Katherine Jenkins possibly looking less attractive without her make-up; what appears to be a Wickes-sponsored section on power tools - just some of the unbelievably boring conversati

The Christian O’Connell Breakfast Show
Absolute Radio

“What do we all think now that Becks has retired, then?” asks Christian O’Connell, the presenter of Absolute Radio’s Breakfast Show (weekdays, 6am) – and, as of 13 May, the first radio personality to win ten gold Sony Awards, the sector’s most prestigious accolade. “I mean, it’s big news,” he insists. “Front page of every single newspaper – looking dashing, as ever.” A brief silence as O’Connell contemplates Beckham, the ultimate figure of fiction. “It is big news,” concedes his co-host, Richie, like Auden considering Freud, “but I found that once he’d left the Premier League, I was kind of like, ‘OK, fine, go and have your fun,’ and then there was America and I was like, ‘OK, you know . . .’ and then France.” More drinking things in.

“Then I saw Chris Waddle yesterday,” expands Richie, his voice growing daring, “and he said, ‘Good player – but wouldn’t have said great.’” Typical Waddle. How a man with hair universally agreed to more closely resemble a psychological dysfunction can say of anyone, least of all Theo Walcott, “He doesn’t have a football brain,” is beyond me.

“Oh, really?” counters O’Connell, “because I would have thought you could say he was a great player” – and so on, proving that Beckham is simultaneously the most underrated and overrated player of all time. Also that people knock him not just because they are annoyed at the way he always hurled himself into self-promotion but because of the way the media consistently sold him as great, even during the times when he wasn’t. The whole thing is unbelievably boring – I apologise for even bringing it up.

But then The Christian O’Connell Breakfast Show is unbelievably boring. This conversation – deemed to be so electrifying that it headlines the weekly Absolute podcast – was one of several equally boring conversations: what happened to the drinks sideboard as a item of furniture; the mighty Katherine Jenkins possibly looking less attractive without her make-up; and what appears to be the usual Wickes-sponsored section on power tools, all topped by Ian Wright thoroughly running the dangers of self-parody concerning the Premiership season. “The top end has been fine,” confirmed Wright, from a deep place in his unconscious soul. “The middle section has been good. And obviously . . . the bottom. You know what I mean?”

Newton Faulkner and Gary Kemp in the studio with Christian O'Connell (centre) in the Absolute Radio studios in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser