the observer Sun 02 November 2008
Liverpool's brilliantly successful year as European Capital of Culture - Beatles, spiders and all - prompts a roll call of the talents of its native sons and daughters: not only John, Paul, George and Frankie Goes to Hollywood but also Dame Beryl, Sir Simon Rattle, Rooney and the anarchic comic genius of Ken Dodd. Its citizens duck, dive, shimmy or swagger beneath St George's Hall, the finest example of neoclassical architecture in Europe. Paul O'Grady could have come from nowhere else.
Actually, he came from Birkenhead, just over the water. First celebrated as the viciously hilarious drag queen, Lily Savage, O'Grady is now an official national treasure with a teatime chat show that manages to spin the subversive into the safe. None of this, refreshingly, is mentioned in his first volume of autobiography, which ends when O'Grady is 18. The late George Melly, himself an almost Proustian Scouser, set the standard for this type of autobiography and, while O'Grady is not so naturally gifted a writer, it is no faint praise to say that Melly would have loved this book.
At My Mother's Knee opens with a riotous extended meditation on O'Grady's mother's dentures. The eldest of the Catholic Savage girls, Molly, in common with many working-class people who suffered from poor diet and negligible dental hygiene, voluntarily had every tooth in her head removed in the early 1960s and thereafter furiously regretted it. The teenaged Paul frequently found the loathed dentures 'grinning up obscenely from the pages of an upturned library book' as he tried to get down to a bit of serious snogging on the family sofa.
A bright, mischievous, home-loving boy, born in 1955, and the youngest of the household by 11 years, O'Grady seems poised between scholar and scally. Although we are given vivid glimpses of Paul himself - a kind of camp Just William, acting out his diva fantasies as an exhibitionist altar boy - the real star is his mother. Part Grimms' fairy tale, part Dickens, part, indeed, Lily Savage, Molly O'Grady is so much larger than life that she seems almost a fictional creation. The chapter in which she discovers a lump of dope in her son's bedroom and moves from moral outrage to getting 'off her face' during a power cut in the Winter of Discontent of 1979 is both elegiac and wickedly funny:
'We both slept downstairs that night as the damp, arctic bedrooms would have meant certain hypothermia. My mother slept on the sofa, me on cushions on the floor. During the course of the evening we had got through a loaf of bread, a pot of diabetic jam, half a packet of chocolate digestives, two fruit yoghurts, cheese on toast and a Battenberg, and she claimed that she wasn't stoned.'
Other relatives are equally vividly portrayed - jolly Annie Duane, who added the phrase 'Christ on the Cross' to everything she said; the 'fillum'-loving neighbour Mary who, being no better than she should be, fell over drunk one night to reveal that 'her choice of lingerie was an old pair of her husband's underpants, grey with age and secured at the waist with a large nappy pin'. You couldn't make it up.
Paul O'Grady believes that comedy is formed in childhood, and we see how the darkly glittering Savage sisters, his shy father's Irish family and a cast of hundreds of sparky Liverpudlians entranced his boyhood. Possessed of a comic and deeply northern relish for language (his first kiss, administered by a promiscuous older girl, is 'akin to being rubbed vigorously in the face with half a two-day-old honeydew melon'), it seems inevitable that the bisexual teenager would be more than at home with the high-camp linguistic bravado of Liverpool's gay scene.
The volume concludes, aptly anticipating O'Grady's showbiz future, with brief encounters with Marlene Dietrich and Diana Dors. Among the three-for-two slew of sleb lit heaped on the tables of the nation's major bookshops, the hastily written, commercially driven memoirs of Pinky, Parky, Porky et al, At My Mother's Knee distinguishes itself on every level.