A Talent to Amuse

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Thirty years or so ago, we always shopped on a Friday morning at a local supermarket, and for a number of weeks we observed a strange phenomenon in the car park. Cars would arrive at, say, five to nine – but instead of everyone leaping out and going about their business, not a door opened until five seconds past the hour, when with one accord everyone sprang from their cars and made for the lift. The reason: at nine, Arthur Marshall stopped reading the latest instalment of his autobiography, Life’s Rich Pageant (1984).

Marshall was one of those people who become extremely well-known and indeed well-loved, and who delight and entertain, without seeming actually to have made any effort (Joyce Grenfell is another example). His talent was remarkable, incorrigible and effervescent. Life’s Rich Pageant goes some way to explaining how he did it, while at the same time being a hugely enjoyable read.

The title of the book was inevitable. He first heard the phrase from Harry Secombe, some time in the 1970s, and asked where it came from. ‘From you,’ said Secombe – and indeed Marshall found that he’d used it in a recording he had made in the late 1930s. The compilers of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations having failed to find it anywhere else, had attributed it to him.

His parents sent him first to the kindergarten section of the Froebel Institute in Hammersmith, then to a co-educational school overlooking Barnes Common, and finally to a preparatory boarding-school on the Hampshire coast. Each experience was, he said, more traumatic than the last. Happiness came at Oundle, which he loved, and then at Cambridge where he naturally graduated to the university dramatic society, appearing in several leading roles and according to Noël Annan acting Michael Redgrave ‘clear off the stage’ as Lady Cecily in Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. But after Cambridge it turned out that he simply wasn

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About the contributor

Derek Parker lives in Sydney with his wife Julia and two wire-haired fox terriers. He has lately been revising some of his early books and making them available on the Internet. The enthusiasm of readers has so far been supportable.

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