Going to Sea in a Sieve: the Autobiography
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 272pp, £18.99
The costermonger has barked his wares for the last time, the newspaper vendor has shouted himself hoarse and now another familiar cry of old London town has fallen silent. Danny Baker has parted company with the radio channel BBC London 94.9, though not without a final, noisy hurrah. He’s the award-winning broadcaster with a voice like – well, put it this way, if they ever turn the Woolwich ferry into a cartoon character, Baker’s a shoo-in for the voiceover. Can it be true, as he has claimed, that he learned that his show was to be axed when he read about it at the doctor’s? Does BBC management really want to replace him with rolling coverage of the capital’s admittedly troublesome drains? The BBC has said it’s all part of a normal refreshing of the schedules.
It’s a dark hour for the capital’s listeners – and a case of here we go again for Baker. Throughout his career, he has walked out of – and sometimes been shown out of – a striking number of the programmes he’s fronted. He can count more exits than London Underground.
Disconcerting as this must be to the longsuffering Wendy Baker and the kids, there’s a cockeyed greatness about this in the eyes of the presenter’s admirers, not to mention timid salarymen everywhere. In one studio after another, Baker has been dauntlessly improvising a kind of epic poem in vernacular blank verse, with funny and rococo passages. Future historians of popular culture will say of him, with apologies to Keats, “Here lies one whose name was writ in between the travel bulletins.”
Somewhere along the way, he invented the football phone-in. It’s an equivocal legacy. With its invariable – indeed, scripted-sounding – iterations of “Such and such a manager has taken us as far as he can” and “We’ve become a selling club”, this type of programme can sound like a tune played over and over again on a tray of wine glasses.
Baker still hosts a talk show on the BBC’s football-mad network Radio 5 Live – or, at least, he does as we go to press. Yet you only have to listen for a few minutes to know that he scorns the hotly contested ins and outs of goal-line technology and has slipped the surly bonds of the pre-match handshake imbroglio. His true contribution may be in pioneering the ironic, mocking critique of the national game that is now a staple of fanzines, online forums and the sports sections of the papers.
However, this mickey-taking is now almost as tired as the proverbial pies at the visitors’ end. So Baker has abandoned it and broken free into the pure ether of surreal whimsy. The only connection that his programme has to professional football is a feature with the self-explanatory title “Retired footballers read the dull bits of erotic fiction”, one of the more unheralded consequences of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. Baker has outflanked his journeymen peers to take the medium in a new direction, only to weary of it and move on.
Having made a comeback from throat and mouth cancer, Baker has now written his autobiography. It must jostle for space on Yuletide shelves groaning with showbiz lives: the misery memoir of this misfiring singer; the bio of that inexplicably in-demand comedian with low self-esteem. Baker, who by his own account was popular in class, top of the form, a big hit with the girls and so on, appears to suffer from the opposite condition.
His happy childhood among the bombedout ruins of postwar south-east London reads like the shooting script of an unmade Boulting Brothers comedy. His love-hate relationship with football began at the age of five when his father took him to his first Millwall game, “a screeching Hogarth sketch wired to the national grid”. An even more formative experience was sitting on dad’s knee as he read from the mesmerising verse of Edward Lear.
Despite Baker’s encounters, as a young journalist on the New Musical Express, with the giants of pre-download rock’n’roll – on the road with the Clash; a brush with Michael Jackson – it’s Baker Snr who emerges as the hero of the book. A docker with his own fierce code of back-scratching and boot-filling, he, too, was an improviser of genius, returning home from the waterfront burdened with jetsam of a distinctly moody kind and enlisting the family to help him “knock it out” for ready cash.
His son took this life lesson into his early career among the record shops of Soho, where he developed a sideline in knocking out prog rock albums that were questionable in more ways than one. Like its author, Baker’s book is garrulous, preening, self-mocking and funny. It’s as rattling to read as it evidently was to write. In the proud Baker tradition, it’s a bit of a knockout.
Stephen Smith is culture correspondent of BBC Newsnight