‘The Freewheeling John Dowie’ reviewed

❉ Dowie may have left stand-up behind but his bone-dry sense of humour certainly hasn’t abandoned him, writes Andy Murray.

There are many insights into Dowie’s career, from his Big Girls Blouse days through the Factory period and up to the writing of recent theatrical successes. In the telling it’s far from comprehensive and rarely chronological, but that’s not the point. It’s all about the tangents with the overseas cycling exploits as a framework – ‘Detour de France’, if you will.

What has a hard back and disappoints you at Christmas? The answer of course is a celebrity memoir. It’s all too easy to be lured into reading a book by someone whose work you’ve liked on telly without due consideration of whether they have any gift for prose (oh, hi Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg). For several reasons, The Freewheeling John Dowie is a highly honourable exception. For one thing, Dowie might not qualify as a celebrity these days as he’s stepped well away from the limelight and isn’t likely to pop up on Live at the Apollo any time soon. For another, he really can write.

Above: John Dowie and Ken Campbell defend VALIS by Philip K Dick on ‘Battle of the Books’ with Mariella Frostrup and James Naughtie.

For the initiated, Dowie first came through with his comedy rock group Big Girls Blouse as a cabaret scene contemporary of John Hegley and Victoria Wood and then as a solo act he was a fellow traveller with the alternative comedy mob. He was even one of four artists on Factory Records’ inaugural release, 1978’s A Factory Sample EP. His musical poems, something vaguely like the recorded output of John Cooper Clarke, were so short that he squeezed three tracks onto his side of the EP, outpacing two each from The Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division. By the mid-90s, Dowie had stepped away from stand-up and has since concentrated on writing and directing.

This book is a curious prospect, a memoir which dots career reminiscences amongst a literal journey in celebration one of his current enthusiasms, to whit cycling. It’s a bold, unconventional, even rather eccentric structure but it really works, by dint of the fact that Dowie has great stories to tell and a sure-footed knack for telling them. When he’s not riding between campsites, he offers his thoughts on mortality, love, lust, war, the afterlife, parenthood, royalty, race and hearing voices in his head. It’s often unflinchingly honest and there are some genuinely lyrical, reflective moments along the way, such as his observation that, during his youth in Birmingham, the local pub ‘was where strong men went to be weak and weak men went to be strong’.

Above all that, though, this is very funny indeed. Dowie may have left stand-up behind but his bone-dry sense of humour certainly hasn’t abandoned him. For instance, at dawn on a Rotterdam campsite, he’s struck that ‘Cock-a-doodle-do’ essentially translates as ‘Time to fuck a hen’. When arriving at a Harwich ferry terminal, he encounters a gang of teenage girls and admits, ‘I’ve only been afraid of teenage girls three times in my life. When I was younger than them. When I was the same age as them. And ever since.’

There are many insights into Dowie’s career, from his Big Girls Blouse days through the Factory period and up to the writing of recent theatrical successes Jesus, My Boy and Dogman. In the telling it’s far from comprehensive and rarely chronological, but that’s not the point. It’s all about the tangents with the overseas cycling exploits as a framework – ‘Detour de France’, if you will.

It’s hardly a travel book, although at times it veers towards being a cyclist’s diary. The bike stuff probably isn’t the strongest material, though, and readers may learn more about the relative prices of European campsites than they strictly bargained for. However, Dowie knows to break this up, and an engaging digression or anecdote is usually right around the next bend, be it about 70s arts labs, collecting vinyl and comics or the joys of wearing varifocals. Impressively, as book titles go, then, this manages to work on three (count ’em!) levels.

All told, this adds up to a great read with much broader appeal than you might think. It’s written with skill, flair, intelligence and plenty of humour. For someone who seems happy to present himself as anti-social, Dowie is actually very fine company to spend 240 pages with.


❉ ‘The Freewheeling John Dowie’ was published by Unbound Digital on 5 April 2018 and is available at excellent bookshops and at Amazon here

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