Stephen K Amos: I Used To Say My Mother Was Shirley Bassey

Book review by Steve Bennett

Stephen K Amos’s literary debut is, unsurprisingly, written with the same light touch as his crowd-pleasing stand-up. Indeed many of the chapters from his life, described with cheerfully witty candour, read like comedy routines – even down to payoffs that are almost too good to be true.

The title, for example, comes from a story when the young Amos, eager to impress his schoolmates and lose his perennial outsider status, spun a yarn about his mother being the famous Welsh songstress. So impressed was everyone – even the teachers – that they invited her to open the school fate. What’s more, flattered by the honour, she accepted.

You might expect a comeuppance that his lie was exposed when she showed up, but apparently so unused to black people were the people of Lewisham in the early Eighties that they quite happily accepted she was the woman behind the Goldfinger song.

Still, his claims that he was related to 5 Star proved harder to pull off when they came to play at nearby Wimbledon Theatre, and his fellow pupils all wanted VIP tickets. But if that seems rather dishonest, it is nothing as to some of the pint-sized psychos Amos shared an education with.

These amusing memoirs are full of such stories of life as a second-generation immigrant in a country not quite sure what to make of the new arrivals. What might come as a surprise, though, is that Amos – whose mysterious middle initial stands for Kehinde, ‘second-born of twins’ in the Yoruba language – spent some of his youth being brought up among relatives in and around Lagos, Nigeria.

When Amos was eleven, the family of seven, with no notice, decamped via a West African Airways ‘flying coffin’ flight – which provides the cue for some of the most stand-up-like writing of the book, on the subject of cheap air travel that puts Ryanair to shame. The Amoses, used to semi-suburban London life, travelled to an alien place of frenetic, sticky, overcrowding, and music pumping from every window. These passages make for some of the most interesting and evocative reads, not least because Amos describes a world unfamiliar to most of us, eating with garri – a semolina-like paste – rather than cutlery, in a place rife with all-night parties, sporadic blackouts and endemic bribery.

Sometimes this is oddly described – the corruption and colonialism that meant Nigeria never benefited from the wealth of its land is outlined via the prism of local song lyrics, rather than with facts, but when the anecdotes are first-hand, the book really comes to life – as in the story of Amos being blessed by a tribal king – or Oba – who spun him fables and gave him an honorary new name on a visit to his impressive palace

Similarly vivid pictures are painted when Amos describes his no-nonsense parents or in a series of anecdotes from when the family returned to the UK – standalone stories (or routines?) linked by brisk narrative to get to the next one.

Back in London, he struggled at school both academically and socially – not helped by his forever budget-conscious father’s insistence that fashionable trainers were a rip-off when a market-stall brand was just as good. But entertainingly, he got involved in a rather farcial incident with some, let’s say characterful, local residents, had his first love which ended in hilariously slapstick disaster, and became enamoured with the magic of the stage thanks to the implausibly glamorous West End singer who moved into the house next door.

Yet comedy was something he almost stumbled into by accident, when agent Delphine Manley, then running a small comedy club, reckoned he had potential and persuaded him to compere her gig, despite having no experience at all. Hard to think of anyone on today’s oversaturated open-mic circuit being given a similar break.

Amos takes us through the early days of struggle (and, from his personal life, his first experiences of the gay club scene) and the nightmare gigs people so love reading about, with a night in Portsmouth Jongleurs – where a race riot pretty much kicked off – being a particular career low.

The book ends with success: appearing in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in the West End, playing the Apollo and finally showing his not-always-supportive parents that he could have a lucrative career in comedy. Triumphs are always going to be a less interesting read than the tough times, and Amos rightly keeps this brief, even if you can still imagine this as the schmaltzy Hollywood ending to the movie version of his life story.

As for the print version, it’s a breezy and entertaining read; a jaunty diversion from matters more mundane that’s as dependably warm and good-natured as his live act.

  • Stephen K Amos: I Used To Say My Mother Was Shirley Bassey is published today by Constable, priced £16.99 Click here to order from Amazon for £9.51.

Published: 20 Sep 2012

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