In the days when I travelled I found myself stuck in many strange places. On an Arctic island in a snowstorm, waiting for rescue planes in the South American rainforest, in Khartoum waiting for someone to take us safely across the Ethiopian border. Now, thanks to lockdown, I’m stuck at home.
I thought it would be boring and frustrating but it’s quite the opposite. I’ve begun to notice and take real pleasure in the small things.
Instead of sitting down staring at my screen and throwing occasional glances out of the window, I now stare out of the window and throw occasional glances at my screen.
It’s spring-time and there are wonderful things out there. A few feet away from me a wisteria has entwined itself across a pergola. For the last few months it’s been a dry and spindly thing, but almost overnight it has burst into life and from being a purely functional perch for birds it’s now a thing of beauty in itself, it’s branches tasselled with long purple-white blossom.
And around it I can see birds whose lives are clearly not in lockdown, working hard on their properties and their sex lives. Not laid up like us, they can go where they want, when they want, as often as they want. I envy them.
But Out of The Window means more than what I literally see. It’s also about observing how different the world is now. Letters from the Prime Minister drop through the letter-box, food deliveries arrive, revealing that you’ve pressed one key too many and ordered 400 teabags instead of 40 and the Archbishop of Canterbury conducts Easter Sunday service from his kitchen.
But some things never change. Like multi-option phone calls which have given me a lot of grief recently. You know the sort of thing…
If you are calling to ask about why something has not happened press 1. If you have a query that involves non-availability press 2. If you have previously called and are already in the system press 3. If you have made an application press 4. If you have not made an application press 5. If you have made an application but wish to withdraw it press 6. If you are from Germany and have left your bicycle in this country press 7. If you are called Anthony and play cricket press 8. If you want a straight answer to a direct question press 47.
I’ve imagined this one. But then imagination is the biggest window of all.
These last few days have been so strange and so completely different from anything I expected to run into in my lifetime that I’m still not quite sure if it’s a dream and I’ll wake up and find Dominic Cummings screaming with laughter and shouting ‘Pre-April Fool!’
Where else but in a dream would I be counting the toilet rolls in the cupboard or seeing my local supermarket looking like a bank-robber’s convention or finding not a single restaurant open in the whole country.
The spirit of Python was always respectful of the absurd and the surreal. It was our stock in trade. Now we are asked to believe that a bat in China has closed down the cricket season without a ball being bowled, car factories are making ventilators, a French company is turning bras into face-masks and filming on Casualty has been halted for fear of there being too many casualties. Python has been completely upstaged by real-life.
I find myself in an odd position. Just a half-year after having my heart repaired and feeling ready to kick-start my life for a last sprint to the Great Tape In The Sky, I find the sky isn’t where I thought it was. It’s much closer. In fact were I to stop washing my hands and standing two metres away from everybody it might be right outside my door.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing at home and have always found self-isolating to be a necessary evil. But it’s much easier when everyone else is doing it. Apart, of course, from those who are out there trying to make us all better.
And I’m getting use to spending the days looking out of the window, hoping a sparrow will come by with an idea and thinking about the glass of wine I shall have this evening. 52 years of married life have made my wife and I experts on co-existence, and Hampstead Heath is not a bad prison yard.
That’s today. Yesterday is a place to avoid, nostalgia being a forbidden fruit right now, but tomorrow is the one I have most trouble dealing with. What will it look like and when will it look like what it will look like? Predictions fly around and theories sprout from bushes, but in the end William Goldman’s dictum about Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything” – has been proved right again.
Stay well, Stay indoors. God bless our National Health Service and be glad of what we have. Sunshine, good neighbours and three series of This Country.
Thursday, June 5th, 1975
Cast my vote in the Referendum (the British electorate was asked: Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community). I voted ‘Yes’ because I was not in the end convinced that the retention of our full sovereignty and the total freedom to make our own decisions, which was the cornerstone of the Noes’ case, was jeopardised seriously enough by entering the Market. And I feel that the grey men of Brussels are no worse than the grey men of Whitehall anyway
But I didn’t decide on my vote until this morning, when I read the words of one of my favourite gurus, Keith Waterhouse. He would vote ‘Yes’ he thought, but without great enthusiasm for the Referendum or the way its campaign has been conducted, because of the attractions of the European quality of life! And he concludes, ‘I may be naïve in hoping that remaining in Europe will make us more European, but after a thousand years of insularity from which have evolved the bingo parlour, carbonised beer and Crossroads, I am inclined to give it a whirl.’
Footnote: 67 percent said yes. Of the administrative regions, the only rejections were in Shetland and the Western Isles.
I’ve spent so much of my life knowing Terry that it’s very hard to take in that I shall no longer be able to put an arm around him or ask him which of the twenty-seven beers he’s just sampled I should drink, or thank him for the most amazing dish he’s created or watch his indignation when I mention one of the many buzzwords which unfailingly caused him to ignite. “Democracy’ was one. “America” another.
It’s not easy to define what it’s like just being with someone. Memories drift in and out. In the Oxford Revue at the 1964 Edinburgh Festival we performed a version of the Manfred Mann hit ‘5-4-3-2-1’, which we re-christened ‘R-S-P-C-A’. It required the cast to line up on stage in a blackout. The only access was a flight of very steep stairs. Terry was halfway up the stairs when out of the darkness came a loud discordant ear-splitting crash, a moment’s silence, followed by a plaintive high-pitched cry. ‘Oh no! I’ve broke my sodding guitar’.
It wasn’t Johnny Cash, but it was a wonderfully endearing moment.
What else do I remember? Giving blood together – Terry enthusing, “They give you a cup of tea!”. Being asked to be the first to use the newly opened public toilets in Lambeth Walk. Terry and I, bladders at a standstill, as the band played outside, and reporters gathered for our verdict. Queuing up to buy the Sergeant Pepper album and spending the entire working day, when we should have been writing jokes for David Frost, playing it over and over again with forensic delight. The night I had to drive Terry to the local hospital after he’d slashed his finger while shucking oysters. The sight of two Pythons walking in, one with his hand up in the air, so raised the spirits in A and E that the doctors asked if we could come in more regularly.
Terry was a quiet thoughtful man, but once he’d taken refreshment he could become dangerously relaxed. His unscheduled striptease on stage at the Oktoberfest Beer Festival in Munich was later described by Eric, who witnessed it, as one of the most potentially suicidal performances he’d ever seen.
Tunisia 1978. Terry directing The Life Of Brian and playing the hermit at the same time. Discussing camera angles whilst stark naked save for a long grey beard (attached to his genitals by gaffer tape I believe)
After the Meaning Of Life our working lives went off in different directions but we continued to meet up for a beer, or a game of squash, or a meal and we’d chat about our different projects. Terry was unfailingly supportive, but honestly critical too. He had a way of nailing down what was not working and suggesting a way round it. He treated me as if we were still writing together.
Terry was warm, generous and sociable. Always interested in meeting new people and sharing his enthusiasm with them. I’ve made many good friends through Terry and their messages and memories, coming in over the last few days, all conjure up a vision of a good man.
And that’s really it. Terry was a good man.
A bright light will have gone out in many lives with the news of the death of Nancy Jones on the 20th December.
Nancy, born in Detroit and working for Buddha records in New York when I first met her, was one of the great stalwarts of Monty Python. Frustrated by American television’s lack of interest in Python she concentrated on making sure our albums found their way to America, whilst seizing every opportunity to introduce the shows themselves to the American public.
I first encountered her devotion to Python’s work in June 1972 when Terry Jones and myself met up with her on our arrival in San Francisco at the end of our first-ever visit to the States. In 1973 Nancy persuaded most of us to come to California after our not entirely successful Canadian stage tour. She virtually put her job on the line by managing to book us on top shows like Johnny Carson and The Midnight Special, and far from discouraging her, the fact that these appearances were met with complete incomprehension only caused Nancy to re-double her efforts to introduce Python to her homeland.
Her patience was rewarded the next year, when, almost too ecstatic to speak, she called me to say that PBS had taken the shows for America. What followed in the next few weeks was a growing number of similar calls from Nancy as Python swept the college circuit right across the States, becoming a massive cult hit.
Nancy was by now Monty Python’s US Manager. Her music connections and her mixture of charm and dogged persistence was perfect for our predominantly young audience.
When, in 1976, the BBC made a sale of some of the Python shows to ABC television, without our agreement, Nancy it was who encouraged us to follow Terry Jones’s suggestion and mount a legal challenge. She organised lawyers and testified, along with myself and Terry Gilliam, in the Federal Courthouse in New York. We lost the battle, but won the war. On appeal the BBC were found to have acted unlawfully. The US judges ruled that the copyright lay with Python and none of our work could be sold without our permission.
Nancy went on to help the films Holy Grail and Life Of Brian become big successes in much of America.
She was in charge of publicity on Monty Python’s last film, The Meaning Of Life, where she met actor Simon Jones and much to everyone’s surprise and delight they married and a few years later had a son, Tim.
The transatlantic marriage ensured that Nancy visited London regularly, and though Python group work was declining, Nancy was always there, ready to offer her expertise to help and advise both the group and individuals with their projects.
Nancy never lost her ability to mix business with pleasure. She was a party giver and partygoer and the most wonderful friend and companion, funny and sympathetic and outstandingly loyal.
She brightened up, but never dominated a room. She had the gift of listening and caring about people. Python benefitted so much from her quiet, persistent enthusiasm and all those lucky enough to know Nancy benefitted from her warmth, her sense of fun and her wonderfully positive approach to life.
Yes, the light she brought to so many lives will be irreplaceable, but the memories of Nancy will be joyful and unforgettable.