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