❉ Writer, biographer, novelist, broadcaster on her heroes, influences, inspirations, career and cult faves.
Following in the footsteps of her father Ken Jones – the former ‘Voice of Sport’ at the Sunday Mirror, sports columnist at The Independent, and a fixture on BBC Grandstand – Lesley-Ann Jones has “ink in my veins.”
In a glittering career spanning four decades, she’s worked on-staff at five UK national newspapers and freelanced for many more. She was at Live Aid. She’s toured with bands, wenched and wassailed with superstars across five continents, worked in countless countries, got away with it more than most would consider fair and experienced the magic, dirt and marvelousness of the music industry and Fleet Street. Last year, Hodder & Stoughton published her biography-cum-memoir of fellow South Londoner David Bowie, ‘Hero’. In our latest Q&A, she tells We Are Cult about her heroes, influences, inspirations, career and cult faves.
“Yeah, I liked ‘La La Land’ but it stole from absolutely every musical film that had gone before. People young enough not to remember the likes of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘An American in Paris’ found it wildly fresh and innovative. Nothing new under the sun.”
What were you like at school?
A swotty little nerd. I could already read when I arrived – my mum taught me – so I was bored, to begin with. I started writing stories when I was five. I was useless at sport, so was never once picked for any team, which gave me an inferiority complex. I had ‘Joe 90’ specs and plaits, which only my real friends Karen French and Julie Ives-Routleff could see past. They remain my close friends to this day.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A writer. I have never wanted to be anything else. My dad Ken Jones, a former professional footballer, was injured out of the game at twenty-four. He went to Fleet Street as a football reporter, and grew up to become one of the UK’s most celebrated sports columnists. He spent ten years on the road with Muhammad Ali. I wanted to be like Dad, but I knew nothing about sport. Then I discovered David Bowie. He was our local hero in the London Borough of Bromley. I started going round to his house, Haddon Hall in Beckenham, after school, on the 227 bus from Bromley Market Square. Angie would give us signed photos and pack us off home. I was convinced that one day, she would be out, and that David would ask us in for tea. Which is what happened. I was utterly in awe of him, and knew that I had to find a way of living and working with people like him. How? I was neither musical nor artistic (as well as not sporty. There was no hope). Then the pennies all dropped at once: I could emulate my father, become a music writer and follow David and his ilk around, and get paid for it. It’s what I did. I interviewed him several times in different locations around the world. We’d have coffee or lunch occasionally in New York, after he moved there. He was this big rock superstar and he walked on water as far as his fans were concerned. But to me, he was still the same scrawny, cheeky-chappy chancer with hideous teeth (it broke my heart when he had them done. It changed him). He once lent me his house on Mustique, when I was writing my first book on Freddie Mercury.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
You look great, kid, just the way you are. Quit your fretting and gnashing and wailing, get your size six Levi’s on and get out there. You will never be this young or this skinny again.
What are your best and worst qualities?
The same thing. I’m a terrifying pedant. I can’t see past poor grammar, bad punctuation or spelling mistakes, and have been known to hurl newspapers at our pet rabbits in disgust, unable to make allowances for errors. I yell at television presenters, too: a Sky News babe said ‘pronounciate’ on telly this morning! Where on earth do they get them from? On the positive side, an obsession with details and facts is an advantage to a biographer.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Sweeping up hair and shampooing elderly ladies in a tiny local salon on Addington Road, West Wickham, when I was still at school, and when Saturday jobs still existed. Disgusting. I couldn’t stand the smell of perming lotion, either. I still can’t. Most of the clients had their hair washed only once a fortnight, so their scalps were pretty ripe by the time they came in. I felt sorry for them, having to bend their poor brittle necks over the backwash. One or two of them were so frail, they had to sit forwards and manoeuvre themselves face-first into the sink. They invariably got a lapful from me, I was no dab hand with the shower head. I never once thought, ‘This’ll be me, one day’. I never thought about growing older. I intended to be young forever. When I think about it now, old age seems imminent, damn it. Pass the champagne.
Who were your heroes growing up?
My dad. My uncle, Cliff Jones, once the best left winger in the world, who famously played for Spurs and was capped fifty-nine times for Wales. David Bowie. Marc Bolan. Elton John. Paul McCartney. I attend a do twice a year, in June and December, called the Scribblers, Pluckers, Thumpers and Squawkers lunch. It is held on the river in Barnes, and is attended by a fair number of my childhood heroes who I now count as friends. That makes me smile. It’s basically a gathering of old-timers, mostly music hacks, drummers, guitarists and singers. Some of our number fly in from distant planets to attend. No one would dare miss it. Though we do seem to lose a couple after each one, sadly. I knew, in June 2012, that we wouldn’t see Reg Presley again. ‘See ya, folks,’ he cried, waving his walking stick at the throng when came time for him to leave. I had a feeling. He died the following February. Dear John Pidgeon, former Head of BBC Radio Entertainment, a gifted writer, producer and crossword-puzzle compiler who organised the lunch for many years, left us in July last year. He had been a hero of mine forever.
Freddie Mercury was certainly a hero – although I didn’t discover him and Queen until I was seventeen. I went on holiday to Spain with a girl called Amanda, with whom I worked on Saturdays and during the holidays on Food at Marks & Spencer in Bromley. All the way to the Costa Brava on a coach. Imagine. My ankles still swell at the thought. Anyway, we met two sisters called Jan and Maureen Day on the trip. They were massive Queen fans, and kept going up the front to give the driver their cassettes to play during the journey. I was hooked. We still laugh about it.
What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?
The coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, on 2nd June 1953. ‘The day that changed television’, they call it, when mass voyeurism was born. I find it hard to get my head around the fact that this happened more than sixty years ago, before we ourselves were born – because television still seems like a relatively modern medium, in many ways. Perhaps because it is changing so dramatically all the time. Anyway, the cameras entered Westminster Abbey, and Britain would never be the same again. More television transmitters had to be built, to reach the more remote outposts around our green and pleasant land. Thus did television in the UK become truly ‘national’. People who didn’t own their own sets congregated in town halls, churches and hospitals to watch together. Three thousand ticket-holders gathered at the Royal Festival Hall. It was the same thing at Butlin’s holiday camps and at Odeons. 20.4 million subjects watched about half an hour of the service. There were only 2.7 million TV sets in the country: that’s about 7.5 people per set, excluding children, who didn’t count. Historians talk about it having been the moment when television was transformed into a mass medium. It wasn’t really – it was already well on its way – but I’d still love to have watched it live.
Monty Python: Is it funny?
Yeah, well. You had to be there. Much of it leaves me cold, but that’s only because the humour is of a certain era. I was a child. Has it travelled well? Not sure. Having said that, the Four Yorkshiremen sketch cracks me up. We used to quote it endlessly, getting it hopelessly wrong, and not even understanding half of it:
‘Nothing like a good glass of Chateau de Chassilier wine, eh, Gessiah.’
‘You were lucky to have a lake! There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox int’ middle of road … AND we were lucky.’
‘We used to have to get up half an hour before we went to bed, drink sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day downt’ mill, pay t’ mill owner to come to work, and when we got home, our Mam and Dad would kill us and dance on us graves.’
Try telling that to the young people of today … oh, and of course, the parrot sketch. Poor little Norwegian Blue. We did a lot of pining for the fjords. I don’t think I had any idea what those were.
What was the last film that you watched?
‘La La Land’. Yeah, liked it. But it stole from absolutely every musical film that had gone before. People young enough not to remember the likes of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘An American in Paris’ found it wildly fresh and innovative. Nothing new under the sun. I’ve got a Picturehouse membership, I really should see more films.
What film could you watch every day?
‘Field of Dreams’. Corny, I know. My eldest daughter Mia and I became addicted to it when she was little. It’s such a bittersweet picture, and I really can’t bear Kevin Costner. Although I can bear him marginally more than Richard Gere, about whom I wrote up an interview we once did in Philadelphia that opened with the line, ‘The most genuine thing about Richard Gere is his Rolex’. Come on, I stopped short of hamster gags.
I digress. ‘Field of Dreams’ is a metaphor for the way the constants of a country are what hold it together when ‘progress’ and ‘technology’ have destroyed virtually everything else, including one’s childhood dreams. I hesitate to use the word ‘nostalgia’, which makes me sad. My friend Rachel Collier, a Classics teacher, told me recently that the literal meaning of the word is ‘the pain of homecoming’. We tend to hark back to the good old days as we age. So it’s a double kick in the guts to watch this – because not only do I remember its plaintive message, but I also remember the many times Mia and I cuddled up on the sofa to watch it together. Baseball is presented in the film as the symbol of all that was once good in America, and what could be good again. Here, I guess, it would be football. Or cricket. The title sums it up perfectly. I could probably quote you the script line for line if I sat and watched it with you. Everyone knows the quote ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Magical. Why are you laughing at me?
What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
The one composed by my friend Brian Bennett, former drummer with the Shadows, for a new flick about the life of shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. Brian’s score is majestic and haunting. It lifts the forthcoming film to dizzy heights. Brian knows what he’s doing: he’s an Ivor Novello Award-winning film and TV score composer, known for his themes for ‘The Ruth Rendell Mysteries’, and, with his son Warren, the music for ‘New Tricks’.
Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?
Julianne Moore, Bill Nighy, Timothy Spall and Eddie Redmayne are working as we speak on the screen adaptation of my recent novel ‘Imagine’: a murder mystery set in the realms of rock’n’roll and Fleet Street. If I build it, they will come …
Which film, book or record last disappointed you the most?
Rick Astley’s ‘50’. There was so much hype about his new album, I just wanted to like it much more than I did. The poor guy was a bit of a joke when we were young. He was supposed to have got cool. I didn’t quite hear that, and I needed to. Not sure why.
Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?
Rick Wakeman’s ‘Piano Portraits’. Rick has magic fingers, but is the most modest and down-to-earth bloke you could wish to meet. He does so much for so many, quietly and without fanfare. He played keyboards on both ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Life on Mars’ when he was little more than a kid. He created the piano accompaniment on Cat Stevens’s hit ‘Morning Has Broken’, but has never written it down, so that he can’t get ripped off again … which he has been, all too frequently. Everyone should own this remarkable album, which comes as close as anything to summing up Rick’s extraordinary career.
Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?
My original vinyl copy of Lindisfarne’s ‘Fog on the Tyne’, the first LP I ever bought, from Woolworth’s on West Wickham High Street with my birthday money. When I went to secondary school, I graduated to the record department at Medhurst’s on Bromley Market Square, where David Bowie used to buy his records.
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
A small, red, leather-bound book into which I have pasted all sorts of bits of paper I have convinced myself I could never live without: a little illustrated paper booklet made by my daughter Mia when she was about five, called ‘Thank You for Everything’; the lyrics of Mike and the Mechanics’ ‘The Living Years’; my youngest daughter Bridie’s ‘Balay (ballet) List’: Socs is wite. Shoos is pinc. Scirt is wite. Liatard is blue’; a cutting from the Sun newspaper in the 1980s, describing me as ‘sexy TV presenter’ …yeah, baby. A card from my son Henry to his father: ‘Mummy dosunt understand because I am in Yere Two and I don’t need help with my work. And I am giving you a HUG.’ Priceless literature.
What’s your definition of what makes something cult?
What springs to mind is the religious connotation. Fanatical stuff. It’s to do with devotion by a small number of people. So in the broader sense, it’s about something of worth, a must-have, that not everybody ‘gets’. It’s the opposite of ‘mainstream’. Exclusive. A ‘cult classic’ has a ‘cult following’. If too many people get to find out about it and love it as well, it’s no longer ‘cult’. It’s a sub-cultural thing, and can be positive or pejorative, depending on your point of view.
What are you reading at present?
Danny Baker’s autobiography ‘Going off Alarming’, which is wonderfully well-written. His daughter Mancie and my Bridie are classmates. I went with his wife Wendy recently to watch him perform his one-man show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. I’m still laughing. Bolan featured significantly, as did tortoises and lizards.
You’ve enjoyed a long, successful career in journalism and broadcasting. Can you tell us a little about what that journey’s been like?
Chaotic. Undesigned. More a matter of having found myself in the right place at the right time than any structured career path. ‘Careers’ seem much more programmed, these days. In the old days, you could pick a random subject to study at tertiary level – I did French and Spanish, and a bit of business Studies at the Alliance Francaise in Paris; do work experience at Capital Radio (we didn’t have ‘internships’ back then); go to work at Chrysalis Records; hear a rumour that a new TV channel was about to launch – Channel 4; rock up for an audition; get the job; have a Warholian fifteen minutes of fame on the box before moving on to Fleet Street, and then crash round the world interviewing rock stars for a couple of decades. All of which I did. Nowadays, you’ve practically got to have a degree in every one of those elements to be in with a chance of getting a job. The lack of technology really helped: there being no internet yet, newspaper editors had to send us everywhere to get exclusive interviews. I travelled the world on the expansive budgets of managing editors. Nowadays, celebrities no longer give exclusive interviews. They do heavily managed press conferences and junkets. Back then, if they liked you, they would ask you out for a Chinese or to come to Dusseldorf for the weekend. Nowadays, you’d never be left alone in a room with them, there would be twenty other people present, and you’d get to ask two questions if you were lucky. We flew by the seat of our pants, and we had the best of it. Nowadays, I work largely in isolation. I should get out more.
Who has inspired you over the years?
‘Too few to mention …’? The opposite, actually. Everybody inspires me. Anyone at the top of their game who also gives back. I grew up listening to Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, thanks to my Mum and Dad. I was fortunate enough to interview both of them. ‘Frank Sinatra never gave interviews,’ sneer the cynics. No, he didn’t – but that didn’t stop me firing questions at him when I encountered him at a Hollywood gala for Ella Fitzgerald in the late Eighties. From his clipped, sardonic retorts, I wrangled a two thousand-word feature for YOU magazine. That was the way we rolled. Who else? My grandfather, Emlyn Jones, and his brother, my great Uncle Bryn, who literally climbed out of the coalmines of Merthyr, south Wales, to play football for first division English clubs. My grandfather played for Everton, and later for Southend United. Uncle Bryn was sold by Wolves to Arsenal in 1939, for a world-record transfer fee, when Europe was on the brink of war. There was a demonstration in Downing Street about the immorality of such a sum having been paid for a mere footballer. They were modest, hardworking men who had toiled in the meanest environment imaginable, to whom fresh air and sunlight meant the world.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
Don’t be yourself. Be someone nicer.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your life?
My former editor at the Daily Mail, Nick Gordon, who tragically died last year. I was a so-what little pop writer when he gave me a break and encouraged me to raise my game. We had the fiercest rows, but he got the best out of me. When I had to come off the road and stop following bands around, after the birth of my first child, he took me with him to YOU magazine, where he was now Editor. He gave me the broadest brief imaginable: ‘write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things’. ‘Go anywhere in the world,’ he said, and I did so: with Mia tucked under one arm, until she turned five, and I had to bring her back to London to go to school. Nick adored the Dark Continent. He first set foot on African soil the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He sent me to Africa many times, most memorably to interview Beryl Markham in Kenya. She had been the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo, east to west. She wrote an acclaimed book about it: ‘West with the Night’.
Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?
No. I wouldn’t have had a career without having done so.
What would you like to be your epitaph?
‘They’re all bastards’.
We are at a bar, what are you drinking?
I’ll have what she’s having.
What are your three favourite cities?
Paris, where I lived as a student, and where I intend to live again when I’m ancient, rigged out in a Lanvin coat and magenta lipstick; swanning about, drinking tea or champagne in sidewalk cafés; New York, where I once briefly shared a flat with La Toya Jackson, making me one of only a handful of people at the time who could have told you for sure that she and Michael were not the same person. As was rumoured. I had dinner with them both together, see; and Cardiff. I am, at heart, a Welshwoman.
What do you do to chill out?
What does that mean?
Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?
It’ll cost them …
What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?
The words. Always the words. Being able to translate emotions into precise language that conveys anguish, elation, humour, contempt … the thrill of the quest for the perfect phrase has never dimmed.
What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?
My biography of David Bowie, ‘Hero’, published last autumn. The book is as much memoir as it is biography. My personal story aligns with his. So much about my own life made sense as a result of studying David’s.
‘Hero’ follows on from your acclaimed biographies of fellow glam legends Marc Bolan and Freddie Mercury. Can you tell us a little about what it’s been like writing about the life and work of such iconic figures?
As I was saying …! I’ve turned down a lot of biographies, actually. I recently refused a contract to write about George Michael. There are things about him that I wish I didn’t know. To include them in a book would have tainted me. To have left them out would have been to leave the job half-done. I felt it better not to tackle it at all. I have to really love an individual to want to spend a year or more of my life with them, turning up endless obscure facts about their life, interviewing hundreds of intimately involved and loosely-connected people. Getting the facts right is vital. You can’t go into such a project half-heartedly. Every time I finish a biography, I wonder whether I will ever write one again.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I’m currently writing the novel that I put aside to write ‘Hero’. I’m also working for Julia Jones and Rachel Meir at Found In Music throughout the summer, speaking to gatherings of guests about featured artists such as the Who and the Rolling Stones. In October, we’ll be going to Berlin with a group of fans to explore the city David Bowie loved.
How can our readers discover more about you and your work? (eg website, social media)
Thank you for taking time out to talk to We Are Cult!
❉ ‘Hero’ by Lesley-Ann Jones is available from Amazon and other retailers in hardback, paperback and Kindle.