Call me unpretentious

Ian Hamilton

  • Major Major: Memories of an Older Brother by Terry Major-Ball
    Duckworth, 167 pp, £12.95, August 1994, ISBN 0 7156 2631 0

When John Major ascended to 10 Downing Street, the wits were at first unsure quite how to set about him. There was the obvious, the elementary ‘grey’ approach: the Burton suits, the haircut, the delicious fry-ups and so on. On this reading, Major could be presented as a drearier-than-either cross between James Stewart and J. Alfred Prufrock. He was prime minister by accident, or for-a-day. He’d won the premiership in a raffle, or had it laid on for him by Jim’ll Fix It.

There was of course a brutal snobbishness in this approach, as there had been in all the sneers about Mrs Thatcher’s origins. There was a danger too. By pushing the suburban-man assault too hard, Major’s critics ran the risk of confessing that they would much rather be governed by a toff. After all, to poke fun at Major’s dinginess was to poke fun at half of Britain. At the same time, though, everybody knows that non-toffs don’t get to lead the Tory Party simply by plodding up the ladder. Thatcher was different: she was touched by the feather of unreason. Was Major perhaps similarly touched? He seemed not to be, but who could tell?

The hunt was on for something non-grey in the grey man’s genealogy: a bad apple on the Major family tree, an errant gene, a skeleton in one of those long-ago suburban cupboards. And straightaway there seemed to be rich pickings. This nobody from nowhere turned out to have a family background both garish and eccentric. His father, it was revealed, once manufactured and sold garden ornaments: gnomes, pelicans and cherubs. Before that, he worked as a trapeze artist in a circus and was married to a comedienne (not Major’s mother) who delivered stage-monologues in verse:

And can you ever remember a Tommy,
A Swaddie, a Tiffy, or Jack,
Hear a word said against Mother England,
And not biff the foreigner back?

And then there was the business of Dad Major’s name. Here there were vivacities galore. Dad’s real name was not Major; it was Ball. Christened Tom Ball, he took ‘Major’ as his stage name (with his verse-speaking first wife, he had formed a music-hall double act called Drum and Major). When a business career beckoned, he retitled himself ‘Major-Ball’. And then in old age he finally settled for plain Major. He was 64, and had dropped the Ball, when he fathered our PM.

All this seemed fairly promising, but some of it proved difficult to follow up, or even to substantiate. By the time John had made his mark in politics, both of his parents had been dead for several years. So much for visions of double-page spreads of the old troupers in their leotards. The garden-gnome business had gone bust; data on the trapeze artistry were hard to come by. The Prime Minister was understandably not keen to divulge more than the hacks could discover for themselves. The trail seemed ready to go cold.

At this point, enter Terry Major-Ball, the PM’s brother. Eleven years John’s senior, Terry is the sort of close relative politicians ought to be able to disown: tickled pink by all the publicity, anxious to set the record straight on matters pertaining to the clan, time on his hands, not well-off, loves a chat. A skeleton indeed, and still alive. Terry even looks like John: the expansive upper lip, the trapdoor mouth. The haircut is the same and so, too, are the giant specs.

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