AGE INSIDE: Paul O’Grady

In honour of his 60th birthday today, here is my Age Inside interview conducted a few years ago.

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Paul O’Grady: b. 14 June 1955, Age inside: 18

When I was a kid I had no idea what it meant to be grown up. I couldn’t visualise myself as an adult at all. But age-wise, it’s a funny one. When I’m with my lifelong friend Vera, we feel like teenagers again and that’s how we behave – like we’ve just been let out of the cage. We become kids again, on the rampage.

Frequently I’ll get dressed, and then see myself in the mirror and go, ‘Oh God! That’s not the impression I had in mind!’ I had this red-haired thing in mind, not the grey-haired old man who is staring back at me, and I think, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t what’s inside.’ I can’t relate to what I see.

People ask how I could write my memoirs, and I say it’s because I’m writing about a ghost really, a different person. That person is with me, but at the same time I’m different.

Occasionally it’ll flip. I’ll revert back to being eighteen again. Sometimes I dance like a lunatic to a bit of Northern Soul. Other times I get my trumpet out and give it a blast. I do the full Mazeppa the Schlepper routine from Gypsy –with the bumps! People in my house will be sitting around having breakfast and I’m going toot, toot. Bumping and grinding. And sometimes I do a headstand, to see if I still can.

In Liverpool we call this letting your soft out. It refers to reverting to childhood at any age. My London flat, for example, is a tribute to my childhood. What adult has a penny farthing hanging on the wall? It’s Tara King’s flat from The Avengers all over again, down to the bowler hats on the pegs by the door.

There are lots of things I’ve never grown out of. If there’s an empty space I will fill it with junk overnight, and that’s a childhood thing. My taste hasn’t changed. All the clothes I wore as a teenager I now wear as an adult. I buy them from retro shops. I’m drawn to things that appealed to me as a child, still. I’ll go in a toy shop and have a field day! Oh my god! I will buy a chemistry set and make crystals and do all manner of nonsense. I still lie on the floor and draw like I used to as a kid.

I haven’t outgrown my old self. I love lying on the floor with the papers. And I love watching the things I used to watch. If there’s nothing on the telly I’ll put on a DVD of Upstairs, Downstairs or The Avengers – it’s never off! And I still listen to music that was relevant to me as a kid, and I’ll get up and do a routine.

My daughter finds me shocking. She’s become the adult and me the child. But when I had her, at eighteen, I felt like a kid with another kid, incapable of coping. It was a responsibility I couldn’t quite handle.

There was a moment, when I hit thirty. I had a flat of my own, finally, and I was starting to be successful, and I’d met my late partner, Murphy, about six months earlier. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is where I’m supposed to be. This is it. This is the whole package, all the planets have aligned and this is the right spot for me.’

But the core sensation is that I have this shell, this body, but it’s not me. I’m an eighteen year old. I’ll go climb a tree. I see it, and I’m straight up – I’m transformed. The higher I go, the younger I get. Kids come along and see an old man up a tree. And I like going to sit in the woods, and that was a thing I did as a kid.

Or sometimes you just have the devil in you, teasing people in shops, or a bit of lairiness going up the street with someone. And I’ll think, ‘Why am I doing that, reverting straight back?’ It lies dormant and then, Jesus, does it come out!

Even when I came out of hospital after my heart attack, I didn’t feel like an old man, I felt like a little kid, being looked after. I felt really little and damaged and everyone around me seemed bigger. And I was quite content to let them take over.

I am surprised by myself all the time. It adds to the fantasy side. The job I do is a fantasy. My house in Kent is a fantasy house: if you could design a house for a child, an Enid Blyton house or one for Pippi Longstocking, that would be my house in Kent. It’s full of all sorts of animals, and it’s like a second hand shop with all the junk. I play with everything. I have an old record player I wheel out and play records on.

At the bottom of the garden I’ve got a little house called the Witch’s House. There’s a cauldron and things in bottles and a spell book – all manner of stuff I’ve put in there. It’s not for my grandchildren, it’s for me! I thought it was a boring little room, why not make it more adventurous? It’s full of props I’ve nicked from panto and studios. There’s a basket of apples for Snow White and the spell book’s opened to ‘Sleeping Death.’ I should have been a set dresser, I think.

Even my cars are the ones I wanted as a kid. I have a Mini, and I always wanted Cruella de Ville’s car, so I got a Morgan Aero Max, in black and purple.

I get comfort from these things. They remind me of a time when I was very secure when I was young. I think you revert back to that, particularly in times of crisis. Don’t leave big decisions to me. I think, ‘It’s all very adult this. I can’t be bothered. I just want to play.’

I think my parents had to grow up earlier. My mother was always saying, ‘Look at my bloody face! Where did these wrinkles come from?’ But she was capable of a bit of childish insanity as well. She’d play practical jokes, like she’d give me a big spoonful of yoghurt, which she knew I hated. I’d be in bed in the dark and she’d say, ‘Do you want some of this marvelous gooseberry fool?’ and then it was a big spoonful of yoghurt. She never grew out of things. I don’t think not feeling your age is a new thing.

I’m still waiting to feel as old as I am. In my subconscious, it’s all back up there, waiting for me to return to it. I am not going to go gently. I’ll be dancing on the tables and singing. I won’t go gracefully at all.

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