An article disinterred from 1972.  Incidentally, the speedway rider referred to at the end later rode for Sheffield.


Phil D Baskett

Barry Norman, The Guardian, 1972

The last letter I received from Bernard Levin (a young journalist on whose stumbling progress I keep a fatherly eye and whose head I tend to pat encouragingly from time to time) ran as follows: "Have we had that Swedish assassin Dag Ersdrorn?"

Upon reading it I uttered a tortured cry and, in a hand trembling much as his had done, I immediately scribbled my response: "No, and I don't think we've had the Russian spin bowler Lev Tarmova, either." By then I knew that the damage was done and there was no turning back - the fever was upon us.

This is the game that has, in its time, driven us both to the very brink of insanity, the symptoms of its insidious grip being glazed, unseeing eyes, mumbling lips and the murmuring of strange incantations "Helen Highwater," the sufferer mutters, sometimes to perfect strangers, "Jerry Attrix ... Aidan D'Abett ... Pugh Bickair ..."

We were introduced to it, Levin and I, by one Julian Holland, who now masquerades as an editor on 'The World at One', when we all worked together in the same office and, being unable to find anything better to do, were desperate for kicks. It was this Holland who, one day, mentioned a mythical American called Phil D. Basket who used to exhort New Yorkers to throw their litter into bins rather than the street, and at once we were hooked.

From Phil D. Basket it was but a short step to Mahatma Kote, the Indian cloakroom attendant, Segovia Karpett, the drunken musician and Mustapha Phix, the Turkish drug addict; while pretty soon we realised that if Warren Peace was the biographer of Tolstoy, then Bertha D. Blews must be a jazz singer, just as Rudy Day was a regretful husband and Lottie Cairs his neglected wife.

Very swiftly this became known as 'the Phil D. Basket game' and nobody got any work done at all. Men would sit up far into the night reading dictionaries for inspiration and come in the next day, red-eyed but triumphant, shouting: "What about Bosun Arrows, the nautical archer, and Walter Wall, the carpet salesman, and Jonah Farck, the transvestite saint, and Stan Dandyliver, the highwayman, and ..."

Oh, quite, quite. And what about Fay Slifter, the plastic surgeon, and Gloria Stevvon, the West Country beauty queen, and Sailor Vee, the easy-going seafarer? Oh, there was no end to them.

After a bit other addicts joined in too. Kenneth Tynan produced the French waltz expert, Charles Louis D'Ince, and Benny Green the untidy Asian, Ram Shackel, and Ronnie Scott (the jazz club man) introduced Xavier Breth, the flamenco dancer.

Then our lives (not to mention our poor crazed minds) became crowded with some very strange people indeed, many of them foreign - a Dutch folk-singer called Hans Neezen-Boomzerdayzee, a dance hall cleaner named Artur di Ballwass-Ova, various Chinese such as Chou-en-Gum and Tai Pist (a drunken stenographer, presumably), Ann Tzinner-Pantz, the middle European contortionist, and Beau Neidel, the lazy German fop.

And, too, there were Yul Brynner's cousin, Baldur Zerkoot, and Art Sidewright, the international footballer, and Celia Lipps, the spy mistress, to say nothing of Belle Tupp, the professional heckler, Shaw Tandwrighter, the clerk of the court, and TV pundits like Mark Mywerdz and Liz N. Toomie and such alcoholics as Titus Attick and Les Avanuther.

I could go on pretty well indefinitely. At the last approximate count we had assembled a cast of well over 300 people, all of them closely related to Phil D. Basket. But, of course, the truly mind-blowing thing, and the reason why, once hooked, you can never kick the habit, is that the list in inexhaustible. The Brendan Behan play, 'Richard's Cork Leg', produced one additional Irish tart called Crystal Clear (employed, I expect, by my favourite madame, E. C. Vertue), although what she proves really is that, in the Phil D. Basket business, Behan was only an amateur.

But best of all - a perfect example of life giving art a thrashing at its own game - was the news the other day that the runner-up in the world speedway championships was a Swede called Bernt Persson. To be called Bernt Persson and deliberately to become a speedway rider seems like a wilful challenge to the gods and one can only keep one's fingers crossed for him. Nevertheless, Bernt Persson is surely as clear a winner of the Phil D. Basket Gold Medal as Hans Downe or Art Wright, unless, of course, someone produces a genuine Norwegian bartender named Lars Torders.