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Hardcover: UK: Diamonds aren’t forever

By digging up Shirley Bassey’s past, John Williams succeeds only in belittling her remarkable rise to the top

By Peter Conrad  /  THE GUARDIAN, LONDON

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Heaven, if it exists, will probably be like a cheesy repeat of the old TV show This Is Your Life, with an archangelic host leading on a troop of doddery former friends to tell comfortable lies about you. Hell, on the other hand, will be like having to read an unauthorized biography of yourself written by a pitiless researcher who has exposed your secrets, reminded you of the hurts and humiliations you suffered, and unearthed the bodies you buried long ago.

“How could you?” a friend of John L. Williams’ asked him last year at the Roundhouse, London, where they were both watching one of her spangled, stentorian performances, which naturally ended, after she had belted out the theme song from Goldfinger, in a shower of gilded confetti. Defending himself, Williams psychobabbled about the need to face hard truths, as if he were Bassey’s court-appointed therapist, charged with getting her to acknowledge the seamy reality of her past — her childhood among the knocking shops of Tiger Bay in Cardiff; her father’s imprisonment for raping a minor and his deportation to Nigeria; her teenage pregnancy, and the brisk decision to hand the child over to one of her sisters; her marriage to a frisky homosexual who declared himself “a little baffled” when she announced that she was pregnant again.

How could he indeed? Well, dirt is gold, just as diamonds — just ask Naomi Campbell — begin life as grubby pebbles. Ordure, in a culture that first deifies celebrities and then defiles them, sells at a premium.

The twinge of guilt with which Williams reacted to his friend’s accusation does him credit, and he has the good grace to feel sorry for Bassey after he rips off her ostrich plumes. Her family was poor in ways that we can hardly imagine: Shirley wore knickers handed down from her older sisters, ate offal or a simple West African dish called fufu, and busked in pubs for a few bob. When she managed to get regular work, it consisted of placing chamber pots in cardboard boxes with wood shavings as ballast; a later job in a launderette was a definite step up in the world. Even as a theatrical beginner, cast in a down-at-heel minstrel show, she kept a precious packet of biscuits under the mattress to munch when the girls with whom she shared a room were asleep. Her most ardent dream was to be “an air hostess.” She might still be only a waitress, but at least she’d have wings.

Publication Notes

Miss Shirley Bassey

By John L Williams

256 pages

Quercus


No wonder Bassey’s best-known performances — I (Who Have Nothing), her Bond songs about diamonds and the man with the Midas touch, or the raucous come-on to the big spender from the musical Sweet Charity — were anthems in praise of money, bellowed with a ferocity that came from deprivation and desperate craving. She represents what old-time socialists described as the poverty of working-class aspirations. At one point her acquisitive fantasy ran to a mews cottage carpeted in mink: “It would be practical in the long run because mink never wears out.” When she bought a house near Hyde Park in central London in 1959, she took a journalist on a tour, helpfully informing him that the doorknob cost the equivalent of about US$2,000 in today’s money. She was pathetically proud of her pale-pink sunken bath, fit for the ablutions of some exotic love goddess, and hoped that it would banish memories of the tin tub in the Cardiff kitchen where she used to scrub herself. “I promised myself a bath with taps one day,” she said. It’s not much to ask for; it’s sad, in fact, that she asked for so little.

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