Although I’ve read a book by an American President before (Barack Obama’s excellent “Dreams Of My Father”) I’ve never picked up anything by a British Prime Minister. This is despite both Disraeli and Churchill being considered good at this writing lark. So what did I choose for my first Prime Minister penned book, one by John Major, a minister I certainly never admired nor ever felt any affinity with- so his achievement in producing a book I really enjoyed is considerable. I saw this book sat on the shelves of the local public library and it was the subject matter that drew me to it- the English Music Hall. I actually didn’t recall that much being made of Major’s background in any positive way during his premiership (I had a vague idea that he came from a family of trapeze artists and circus performers) so it was good to see Major redressing the balance and making his father the central character of this book.
Major’s father was 64 when the future Prime Minister was born and had lived a full life, being a reasonably well known Music Hall act with his first wife. Music Hall was a curiously British, incredibly popular form of entertainment, close to American vaudeville but not quite the same. The first wife had died as a result of a serious onstage injury after a steel girder hit her. The act was known as Drum and Major (which is where the surname came from as the family name was Ball). It was initially a baton-twirling, dance type act but as they evolved they introduced songs and sketches and became popular. John Major here combines what is he knows of his father (realising that he hadn’t asked him that much when he was alive – the same old story) with a very readable general history of Music Hall and its stars. It feels very readable and written with insight and humour (it does occasionally stray off subject but the Music Halls are generally kept centre-stage). He is not always brilliant at citing references and lacks the comprehensive knowledge of say, Roy Hudd and even I spotted a howling mistake . It was Herman’s Hermits who had a hit with “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” (extraordinarily an American Number 1 hit single) and not Manfred Mann, but that was a bit off subject, so I’ll forgive it and it’s probably been pointed out now a thousand times and may have even been corrected in editions later than my library copy. As a popular history of Music Hall, however, it would be hard to beat.
It is a lost world he explores- recording technology was there at the latter stages but unable to capture these people at their best. We may know the names of Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Harry Lauder, George Robey, Little Tich, Dan Leno and the like and we may know some of their songs but Major has done a good job at making these performers (and his own background) more accessible. If only he had been as competent at running the country.