During my five completely freelance years (it is still strange to find myself back in permanent full-time employment, but I’m not complaining, since I love the job), I tinkered with writing a variety of books: well, about five. There was a novel (working title, Quarantine), which I managed about 55,000 words of, before losing the plot. And I mean that literally (I found it when I moved back to the North-East). But there was another one in which my agent – how grand and pretentious that sounds – was interested enough to buy me lunch. In the end, I realised I was going to have to commit to it for five years, and it wasn’t consistent with having the other eleven jobs. So I put the work-in-progress (‘Lost Lives’) on my web-site, where it remains, and as a result of which I get some very interesting correspondence. What started me was some idle surfing through what was then, and probably still is, the only free-to-view version of the 1881 census – the Mormon one (type ‘familysearch’ into a search engine). I had extracted all I could about my own family from the census, and then I wondered about more famous people. I tried Robert Browning and he came up, describing his occupation as ‘No Occupation: Poet’. I liked that.
I searched a little more. At first I was focusing on the very well-known; and then I thought, what if I focus on those who are not quite so well-known, or whose memories are being distorted and faded in the public memory. I came up with about twenty-five names, many of them hidden under unfamiliar names. What would it be like, I thought, to recreate what they were all doing on one day, i.e. the census day? And the first one I decided to research was the music-hall star Dan Leno. If you mention Dan Leno to most people, they have no idea who you are talking about (although he is mentioned in the first paragraph of A.N. Wilson’s survey of the nineteenth century, The Victorians). I was alerted by a friend to the fact that there was a Dan Leno fan in Sidmouth, whom I went to see, and who had diligently copied every mention of Leno he could find from any number of music-hall memoirs on to his computer. It was a kick-start, especially since the Leno fan allowed me to copy all his information on to what must have been an early version of a portable hard drive (this would be about 2002).
I knew that Leno was not born Leno: he was born George Wild Galvin in 1860. And in the 1881 census he was listed as George Grant (his stepfather was called Grant). I also knew that at his early death (at 43 in 1904), his popularity was such that they cleared the front pages of the London papers to lead with the story; and that his funeral procession had been colossal. I read the two available biographies, by John ‘Hickory’ Wood, and by Gyles Brandreth. It became obvious to me that Wood was relying heavily on what Leno had told him, some of which I knew to be false; and that Brandreth had simply followed Wood as far as the details of his life went. About music-hall, I don’t know a great deal. What interested me was the way the life behind the work had been subtly adjusted. My aim was to see if I could correct the errors. I became very involved with the search (I was looking for the same adrenalin rushes I’d had when researching my own family, and meeting descendants of my great-great-great-great-grandparents). I visited one of Leno’s two surviving grand-daughters, who very kindly let me into her home. And when Leno’s grave was re-dedicated in 2004, I was invited to the ceremony. I wrote a good article about it – and couldn’t sell it. Couldn’t give it away. Leno’s life really was lost. And there were very few at the graveside; and as far as I know, no reporters.
There was a buffet lunch not far from the cemetery, where Roy Hudd (who was once told by a clairvoyant never to go to the grave, although he is a long-standing advocate of Leno, and who therefore gave the graveside dedication a miss) gave a speech. By this time, I knew a fair bit about Leno’s family, to the extent that (watch my swollen head) Hudd, and I don’t know how he knew it, said to the assembled Galvins, ‘If you want to know who you are, ask Bill Greenwell.’ I expect I wore a soppy smile. But the fact is, quite a lot of my web-site information was slightly incorrect, although more correct than Wood and Brandreth.
A few years later, I was contacted by Barry Anthony, a writer who was working on a biography, and he generously pointed out some of my more flagrant errors. Now his book, The King’s Jester, is out, published by I.B. Tauris, and it systematically and entertainingly blows away all the cobwebs. Leno’s life was spectacular, and Barry Anthony’s research is impeccable – not least because he does know about music-hall. It’s £14.49 on Amazon. It is a brilliant piece of research, and also – and you don’t often get this with biographies – exceptionally well-written. Amazingly, he has unearthed a picture of the row of houses (Eve Place) where Leno was born. (Leno always claimed that they had been swept away when St. Pancras Station was built. But they weren’t, and he wasn’t, as he claimed – and may have believed – ‘born under Platform One’. Like all raconteurs, Leno told that tale until it was part of his patter: true by default.)
You can also find out more about the book on the publisher’s site here. I can’t recommend it enough: if you want to know about the hard way to the top of the entertainment profession in the late nineteenth century, you must read it.
Its publication reminds me of that weirdly happy day in London, a little gusty, knots of Galvin cousins, many unknown to one another, looking on. Here are two mementoes: of Roy Hudd (who has written an introduction to Barry Anthony’s book), with each of Leno’s grand-daughters, Peggy and Ranee.