Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ambition makes you look pretty ugly

It will, or should, come as no surprise to anyone to find that the world is a cutthroat place. I personally work in an industry of remarkable contrast in this respect; although it is, on the surface, a friendly, fun and informal way of earning cash, it is very bitchy and backstabbing behind the scenes. There are only so many gigs, and now hundreds of established and thousands of aspiring comics all jostling for a slice of the pie. Do a good gig and, certainly once you have a reputation as being at least reasonably handy behind the mike, no-one will draw reference to it. Give an under-par performance though, or, heaven forbid, die on your stinking hoop, and the news will be gleefully bandied around the circuit with the pace of a Japanese bullet train. Ill tidings travel so fast in this business you can practically hear them swoosh.

All businesses are like this, though, certainly at the top end, and just about everyone wants to make at least some headway in life. Although barefaced ambition and careerism may be decried as vulgar, most of us have things we want to achieve and plans to get there.

Such is the subject of one of my favourite televisual delights, “The Apprentice”. Now in its third series, it offers contestants the opportunity to win a job (with a six figure salary, no less) with Sir Alan Sugar, the famous entrepreneur. Each week, he sets his hopefuls, who are organised into two teams, a mini business task. The team that displays the most enterprise, and thus generates most profit, are treated to a day at the races, or a night at the opera, or some other reward that coincides with the name of a Queen album. The losing team are hauled over the coals before one of them suffers the indignity of being fired on national television.

Of course, the show is farce of the highest order. The carefully staged grillings that the contestants receive from Sugar in his boardroom, set to eerie, tension-cranking music, are designed to have the viewer cringing as the desperate, dry-mouthed hopefuls babble their excuses, pointing the finger of blame at each other to save their own scrawny necks. The show also employs the classic (by now, in fact, maybe even hackneyed) tactic of forcing the competitors to live in a house together, so they can plot each other’s downfall whist maintaining the façade of being the best of pals. Being forced to live together also maximises the potential of any underlying personality clashes erupting into proximity-induced meltdown. Nothing, so TV execs seem to think these days, makes good telly like an old fashioned set to.

Despite ticking many boxes in the game of “Naff Reality TV Bingo”, the show has garnered a reputation as required viewing with people who would spurn the genre’s more tawdry offerings. I know many who would rather have a leprous crack-whore with acid for urine squat over them and piss into their eyes than sit through an episode of “Big Brother” (and the tortures they would endure instead of watching “Love Island” are truly, unspeakably foul) but they watch “The Apprentice” religiously. It has become the respectable face of an often ridiculed oeuvre.

The thing I find most fascinating about the show is not the contestants, however, but rather their taskmaster and his cohorts. Sugar gives off the air of a perennially grumpy uncle, but his assistants really put the fear of God into me. Margaret Mountford has a stare that could cut through a bank vault door, and Nick Hewer’s facial expression suggests a subtle blend of mild distaste and extreme discomfort, like a man with chronic haemorrhoids changing a nappy. She is medusa after a haircut, he looks like he has never smiled in his life.

If I were a contestant, they would make me think twice – do I really want this job if that’s what a lifetime working for Alan Sugar does to you?

How did Sugar make his money, anyhow? He owns, amongst other things, Amstrad, but to me that company name is synonymous with slightly less than state-of-the-art computers from the late Eighties. My mate had an Amstrad when we were kids, and all I remember is how blocky the graphics on “Double Dragon” looked compared to on my Atari ST. He also owned Tottenham Hotspur Football Club for a time (Alan Sugar that is, not my mate) so, considering how fraught with hazard investing in football is, it’s a wonder he has any money left at all.

Not that Sugar is the only entrepreneur flashing his wad on telly, as any devotee of “Dragons’ Den” will tell you. On this show, you get not one stern faced businessperson to impress, but five. A panel of investment capitalists sit before you, all willing to throw money at your ideas – for a sizeable piece of the action, of course.

This show is great fun, if slightly more ostentatious than “The Apprentice”. Alan Sugar is famous for being filthy rich, so he doesn’t need to make a song and dance about it (if you discount the huge office building, the fleet of black cars and his habit of turning up by helicopter to announce this week’s task). The eponymous “Dragons”, however, are not household names and so assert their considerable financial dominion over the hopefuls by sitting with huge bundles of cash on the table in front of them. It always reminds me of the Emperor at the end of “Return of the Jedi”, sat with Luke’s lightsabre on the arm of his throne, hissing, “You want thisssss…..don’t you”.

The “contestants” are ushered up the stairs to the “den” where they pitch their business ideas, only to have them torn asunder by the irascible “dragons”. Some of them frankly deserve it, some of the concepts so ludicrously pointless and some of the pitches so hopelessly inept as to be beneath contempt;

Hi, I’m Jim. I, erm…(gulp)…excuse me, I’m a bit nervous...I love gardening, me, and I also love Radio 4. I often put the radio on when I’m doing some gardening, you know, turn it up and leave the kitchen window open…anyway, my garden is quite big. Not as big as the one at the last house mind, but we couldn’t keep on top of it in the end…what with our Elsie’s leg… so, anyway, when I’m weeding at the far end I often struggle to hear, and I’d hate to think I’ll be missing the end “The Archers” just for the sake of a few dandelions! So, I have invented…the combined hoe and AM/FM radio! Just this prototype for the time being, but in time we could extend the range to cover all manner of gardening equipment – spades, pitch forks, trowels…you name it! I would like an investment of £150,000 in return for 2% of the company. Thank you”.

Do you have a business plan?”


Get out”.

For me, the standout “dragon” is Duncan Bannatyne, a man who doesn’t so much cross the line between charming and smarmy as use it to floss his teeth. He is the owner of the famous chain of “Bannatyne’s” gyms (where pretentious young execs pump iron in between sipping lattes and checking their Blackberrys) and presides over the whole affair with a cocksure swagger and a perpetual smirk plastered over his greasy face. Despite the fact that his “I’m doing rather well for myself don’t you know” smugness doesn’t quite cover his roots as a working class Scotsman (he still has the faint air of a man who would glass you for looking at his bird), he is great entertainment and worth tuning in for alone. Take, for example, his putdown to a person who had come on the show with his “invention”, a wedge shaped device designed to alleviate the problem of wobbly tables in pubs;

Well, I don’t mean to rain on your parade pal, but such an invention already exists. It’s called a beer mat. I’m out”.

That's the thing about ambition, you see. It's not always focussed in a suitable direction. Sometimes, people just need to be told.

Peace. X

Monday, April 16, 2007

Let's talk about sex (or The Beast with Two Backs is a Monkey on MIne)

Sex. Sexy, sexy sex. It’s everywhere and, according to some, everything. We are told it's one of the three basic human drives (the others being finding food and shelter, although I think popping bubble wrap should be in there) and we live in a world where we are bombarded with sexual imagery and content almost unrelentingly. Men are supposed to think about sex every seven seconds – the way things are, I’m not entirely sure we have a choice in the matter.

I am no prude and I certainly would not claim that sexual thoughts never enter my head, but I desperately hope I am not alone in wishing that advertising and the media would just take their foot off the sensual gas a little. I’m single, you see, and being single for me pretty much means being celibate. Despite several attempts, I just never really came to terms with the one night stand. Being naked with someone I’ve met only hours previously is an ordeal of awkwardness and paranoia for me, and I fail to understand how other men can be so cavalier about it. I’d love to be cavalier about sex. The very term evokes a wonderful mental image of me, naked, swinging on a chandelier with a rose betwixt my teeth, ready to swash some lucky maiden’s buckle.

The fact is that, being a sensitive creature, it takes a bit of trust to unleash my adventurous side (which is definitely there, mark my words, oh and how) and so the periods between relationships tend to be barren. I don’t, though, think this is necessarily a failing in my character or by extension my life, and as such I object to the media painting me out to be some hopeless loser. I’ll do that on my own terms, thank you very much.

I was watching a film in the wee small hours last night when it struck me what disdain the programmers at ITV hold late night viewers in. There was an ad break at about one in the morning and every advert – every advert – was along the lines of this;

All alone? Then pick up the phone! Talk to horny girls now, they’re just longing to speak with you. Chat, flirt, maybe more…call 0891 23 23 23 now, or text IAMASADBASTARDPLEASEFLEECEME to 90098…”

I took genuine and quite unexpected offence at this barrage of demographic pigeonholing. How dare the planners at ITV assume that simply because I stay up and watch the late movie, I am clearly some kind of social cripple who is so profoundly sad and lonely that my only hope of taking any human comfort in life is to be charged £1.50 a minute to speak to a moonlighting dinnerlady from Grimsby?

Then my righteous bubble was burst somewhat when I remembered that the film I had stayed up to watch was “Street Fighter” starring Jean Claude Van Damme. That really is a loser’s film. I could defend it by saying that Kylie Minogue looks especially hot in it with her long pigtails, but that would probably constitute a massive own goal.

At least I’m a passive victim of this branding, though. Others willingly allow themselves to be tagged in such a way. I despair at men’s magazines like “Nuts” and “Zoo”; they’re like the tabloids to FHM’s broadsheet, and any analogy where FHM is the intellectual’s choice is tenuous at best. These weekly men’s glossies focus primarily on the unholy trinity of semi-naked women, football and photos of horrific injuries.

I question the reasoning of any man who buys these magazines. The whole thing reeks of cowardly conceit to me - if you want to see naked women, have the courage of your convictions and buy some porn. If you wish to read about football, buy a dedicated soccer monthly, of which there are many. If you wish to see photos of horrific injuries, seek professional help.

I can’t even begin to describe the pointlessness of the storm in a teacup I saw fanfared on the front of one of these magazines last week. “AT LAST”, it declared as if announcing a cure for cancer, “SEE LUCY PINDER’S NIPPLES!”

For those not in the know, I should explain that Lucy Pinder is a glamour model who has carved, some might argue, a rather shrewd niche for herself by refusing to expose her nipples. She has been the darling of the assorted lad’s mags for some time now, but all published pictures seem to involve her artistically cupping her ample cleavage in such a way as to obscure the action end of her breasts from view. The teasing hussy.

Finally, though, to the relief of red blooded males everywhere, her iron will has dissolved (either that or she’s decided that the tiresome gimmick has run out of steam) and she will gift the image of those vaunted, hallowed, fiery buds to the eyes of the nation.

I had a look, obviously (strictly for the purposes of research, you understand) and was astounded to see…some nipples. Yep, that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Probably the most anticlimactic thing I have ever borne witness to, and I watched Live 8.

I mean, after all that build up, I was at least expecting something approaching a talking point; that they were bright green, or had little pincers on the end, or that they span around in a hypnotic swirl. Or maybe that she didn’t have nipples at all, but rather an extra set of eyes. That would have been cool. But it was another totally over-hyped letdown, the hollow and empty dressed up as the earth-shatteringly substantial, like the Emperor’s New Clothes (or maybe the Empress’ New Lack of Clothes).

All I’m saying is that maybe it’s time that we punched a hole through all this sex-obsessed bullshit, cast aside our base instincts and took the time to acknowledge and embrace the nobler, more poetic, more aspirational side of ourselves. Maybe it’s time enlightenment emancipated us all from our carnally fixated excesses.

Or maybe I just really need to get laid.

Either way, I’m likely to be frustrated in the short term.

Peace. X

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Deep down, we all wish to be loved. I realise that this is no earth shattering revelation, but the lengths people will got to, and the hardships they will endure, in order to achieve a lasting, loving relationship never cease to amaze me. This week, three stories have highlighted the stunningly irrational behaviour of amorous folk everywhere.

Let’s start with the big hitter; the break up of Prince William and his girlfriend, Kate Middleton.

On the surface of it, this is not much of a story. A couple in their early to mid twenties, sweethearts since their teens, split up. It is a common tale these days – something about that period in a relationship, especially when it correlates with the participants being of that age, equals the death knell for many a coupling. I’m not entirely sure why, either; maybe, as people ease into their third decade, relaxing into their own skin, growing and developing as individuals, they look one day at their partners only to find that the confused teenager they fell for has also changed. Maybe they no longer recognise, let alone like or desire, what they see.

Or perhaps they just think, “Oh God, it’s been years. I want to fuck other people”.

Either way, it’s happened to countless friends of mine, and it’s also happened to me. Seeing as we’re on the subject, I’ll tell you the tale.

I met V, as we'll call her, when she was working at my local Co-op. Unlike the cackling, toothless hags that usually seem to wear the famous blue tabard, she was young, pretty and feisty, with cheeky eyes and a great penchant for flirty banter. I swiftly fell for her from across the checkout, and would find myself visiting the Co-op at all hours, buying all manner of nonsense on the off chance of catching a glimpse of her. For months, I admired her from afar and bided my time, amassing a huge collection of tinfoil and Brillo pads in the process.

I finally plucked up the courage to ask her out, and to my delight she offered minimal resistance to the proposition. Thus followed one of the more purple patches of my life, as for two years, set against the burgeoning of my new career as a stand-up, we shared a loving, exciting relationship.

Unfortunately, we did eventually start to become complacent, to take each other for granted, and so to grow apart. She did not share my passion for comedy, which with almost exponential rapidity became a huge part of my life. She got a new job, as a legal clerk, and her aptitude meant she was swiftly promoted a number of times. We were both broadening our horizons, meeting and hanging out with new people. She eventually decided that our relationship was holding her back.

Not that she told me straight away. She waited for months, nearly three soul-mangling months of emotional distancing and rejected attempts at physical intimacy. Eventually, the night that we had tickets to go and see the pop-star Pink (one of her favourites) came and went. The concert was brilliant. She dumped me the next day.

Yeah. Ouch.

Like I said, though, it’s a common story, and the only thing that makes the William / Kate affair newsworthy is that he is Diana’s son. The fact that the story of their break-up has been the top news story of the day (COUPLE SPLIT UP SENSATION – MORE TO FOLLOW!) is as equally perplexing to me as the hysterical reaction to his mother’s death. I remember being as saddened by that as I am by the death of any celebrity who seems to have been a basically decent person, but feeling completely out of step with the perceived mood of the nation, baffled as to why the world had practically ground to a halt. “But Ben”, people would say, “she was such a good person”. Indeed she was. But then my Gran was as good a person as you could possibly hope to meet, and when she died there were twenty or so people at her funeral. The rest of the world couldn’t have cared less.

Either way, in Diana’s absence the press have latched onto William with similar furore - although strangely not Harry to the same extent. Why could that be, I wonder? Oh, excuse me, I have to sneeze.

A(Hewitt’s son)choo.

This considered, it’s a wonder that the relationship lasted as long as it did, existing inside a bubble of media-induced duress. The recent footage of Middleton being hounded through the streets by a horde of snapping photographers was scarily reminiscent of how the “Queen of Hearts” herself used to live. Kate probably decided to cut her losses now before she ends up dead in an underpass.

Meanwhile, another story of much less profile but comparable interest this week was of an Australian man and an English woman who, having first been in touch on an online poker site and subsequently corresponding through email, were engaged to be married within four minutes of meeting each other in person. There is a joke about taking the term “poker” too literally here, but I’ll leave it.

The couple went on to marry four months later and now live together in Australia. Whilst I admire a streak of devil-may-care in anyone (except maybe air traffic controllers) I must say that this is a kind of rash that no amount of calamine lotion will quell. I wish them well, but this does smack of a mutual act of desperate loneliness. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

Maybe I’m just being a killjoy cynic, which is a shame because I’m a romantic at heart. Why not go out on a limb, take a chance at happiness, no matter how unlikely or fleeting it seems? I refer you to the last of my stories, the tale of a Sudanese man who was so enamoured with the object of his affection that he decided he would consummate the relationship without further ado. Unfortunately, he was disturbed mid-act by his lover’s owner, who was, to say the least, not best pleased to find a total stranger balls deep in her goat.

Sorry, did I not mention it was a goat?

It has backfired on him spectacularly, though. The woman complained to village elders who judged, in their ineffable wisdom, that the best solution was that the man married the goat. The man now has a wife with curly horns, which is something that no-one should really aspire to.

I sincerely hope she divorces him. It would be great to see a goat owning half a farm.

In fact, that is one Prince William story that would be newsworthy. “READ ALL ABOUT IT – WILLS TO MARRY GOAT!” That would sell papers.

Having said that, his father has already stolen his thunder by marrying a horse.

It just goes to show that, no matter how desperate and lonely one gets, there are some limbs one should never go out on.

Peace. X

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Like a Rolling Stone

One of the odd things about life is the way that sometimes, realising you have made a hideous error somewhere along the proverbial path, you are forced to take a proverbial step back in order to take another two proverbial steps forward. This is an inconvenience at best, but is inestimably preferable to blindly blundering on down said proverbial path and finding yourself rapidly immersed in the proverbial shit right up to your proverbial ankles.

The last thing you want to do, having erred, is compound your error by fronting it out. Far better to stop, take stock of the situation, then write a self-indulgent blog about it, preferably using a certain word in the first paragraph far more often than is necessary or sensible.

To get to the point, I messed up last year. Professionally, personally and on most other levels I can think of, I made a fluffy duck's bum of things. I was involved in a house-share in Manchester with some other comics and, with all due respect to them, when the tenancy came to an end in November and the decision was made to go our separate ways, I was relieved as it represented the end of a less than fruitful chapter in my life.

The only issue was financial – being as I am a struggling artist (Irony or pretension? You decide!) I didn't have the money put aside to pay the deposit on a new flat, so I was forced to take the step back I alluded to earlier – namely, I had to move back in with my parents.

I will caveat the rest of this blog by stating explicitly that my parents are both loving and supportive and welcomed me back into their home with open arms, providing me with a comfortable and expedient base from which to reassert myself.

However, I must say that, from my point of view, this was far from ideal. They live in Skipton, a breathtakingly picturesque market town in North Yorkshire, a lovely place to retire to, or to wander round idly on a summer's day. It is, though, officially at the at the arse end of nowhere, and a nightmare to get back to when your job requires you to be away at night. It is also, compared to the bright lights and myriad attractions of inner city living, a very sedate place to be. Factor in that I know no-one here save for my parents, and my evenings at home can seem long indeed.

The other problem is the stigma (in my head, if no-one else's) of being a 28 year old man who is still living with this parents. Surely this is the domain of losers and misfits. I'm a comedian, and comedy is largely the purview of losers and misfits, so maybe I shouldn't be so taken aback at feeling this way. It is, however, a bit demoralising, especially from a social point of view. Should, heaven forfend, I secure the affections of a young lady, I can think of no more assured passion killer than the sentence, "You wanna come back to mine? But you'll have to keep it down – my parents are in bed".

Of course, it's not ideal for my parents either. They had just settled into the steady groove of retirement when I came back like a bad penny. They have been remarkably gracious in accepting their boomerang child back into the fold, and I owe them a massive debt of gratitude. Things are okay, - aside from the odd quibble about my infringment of house rules (which I am guilty of, although I've not lived at home for 8 years, and have got so used to being king of my castle, master of whatever grubby little domain I've surveyed, that there are times when I forget that this is technically not my house) and my frustration at not being able to persuade my father that when, for professional reasons, you keep the hours I do, 10am does not constitute a lie in.

I suppose it's just culture shock. I'm not used to being here and they're not used to having me. It's just a blessing that they agreed, as the streets of Manchester have been, I'll warrant, a bit nippy over the last few months. I may look like I belong in a shop doorway, but when it comes to image I'm no method actor.

I would like, for the sake of balance, to sign off on a positive note, so here goes.

The food is wonderful.

Peace. X

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Chicken Wire?

In response to the trend set by fellow comedian Chris Brooker ( ) in his blog, I thought that I might take this opportunity to recount the tale of one the weirder gigs I have been “lucky” enough to participate in (the title of this blog, for those who don't know, is a reference to the film "The Blues Brothers", in which the eponymous band turn up to play a gig at a redneck country and western venue and notice that there is indeed a shield of chicken wire around the stage, to protect the performers from the barrage of beer bottles hurled by rowdy punters).

I was booked in to do a weekend of gigs in London and my then agent rang me the Monday before and asked if I would like to go down a day early, on Thursday, to do a private bash.

Now I’m normally a little shy of accepting gigs that are not at established comedy clubs or nights. We comedians, you see, in our more self-indulgent moments, like to convince ourselves that we can make funny happen anywhere, that we can summon comedy at will to do our bidding, any time, any place. This is, of course, fanciful nonsense of the highest order. If people have gone out with the expressed purpose of watching live comedy then I (at the risk of sounding arrogant) am pretty confident I can do a good job of entertaining them, but the better part of me is always very wary of having to convince strangers who have not come out expecting comedy to listen as I awkwardly quip at them. Hence, any shows where comedy is not the primary theme, or where the comedy section seems tagged on, always make think twice before signing up.

On this occasion, though, I decided to throw caution to the wind. The gig paid pretty well and I thought, as I was in London that weekend anyway, that I may as well go down a day earlier and earn an extra three figures. Besides, I thought, this is my job. Not all gigs are going to be fun…

The event was the opening of a posh new restaurant in Ealing. The owner had booked a jazz band to play two sets for his assembled guests, and my job was to do thirty minutes in between. Hardly the most auspicious arrangement ever, but I kept my mind on the money and headed down to London, trying to remain as optimistic as possible.

I arrived at the restaurant at about 7pm. Outside was a grand, extended section of decking, covered by some smartly trimmed awning. Well dressed, glamorous people mingled, drinking champagne and eating canapés being distributed by waiters who circulated the throng with silver trays. The jazz band played in the background, largely ignored, adding some suitably sophisticated acoustic wallpaper to the proceedings.

I was greeted by the owner and exchanged pleasantries for a minute or so before asking what would prove to be the killer question.

“So, could we just pop inside so I can have a look at where I’ll be performing, please?”

He shot me a quizzical look before saying, “I’m sorry, what was that?”

I thought, being a stranger to the city, that maybe he had misunderstood on account of my Northern burr, so I repeated the question, being careful to enunciate as precisely as I could without going overboard and addressing him with the exaggerated air of a schoolmaster patronising a halfwit.

“Oh no”, he replied, “It’s not happening inside. You’re performing out here”.

My jaw, my optimism and my bottle all dropped like a stone.

We exchanged an awkward glance as he studied my face, trying to ascertain the reason for my barely concealed distress. Eventually, after what seemed an age, I feebly blurted out an acknowledgement.

“Out here?”

“Yes, over there”, he said, gesturing to where the band were playing.

I took a deep breath and tried to resign myself to the fact that I was about to perform my very first open air gig. I was just about coming to terms with this when he decided to throw me another curveball.

“You did bring a mike, didn’t you?”

I smiled a laughed a little, but, seeing his face had not changed, I cleared my throat and said, “No”.

“Oh, damn it. I left specific instructions with your agent that you needed to bring your own mike.”

“I could use one of theirs”, I said, motioning to the band.

“No”, he replied, he now adopting the tone of a schoolmaster patronising a halfwit, “you can’t use one of theirs because they’re not using one!”

He was right. The band was entirely instrumental. I felt my cheeks burn and the butterflies in my stomach fluttered wildly. It would be hard enough for me do this gig as it was, never mind having to bellow at the crowd without amplification.

“Well”, I said eventually, trying my best to be assertive, “I’ve not brought one and I can’t do it without”.

With this the owner shuffled off with a hail of “if you want a job doing” and “as if I haven’t got enough to do” type mutterings, eventually going to a pub across the road and returning with a microphone and stand. I was told in no uncertain terms to look after it, as the landlord needed it for his quiz on Sunday. Damn it, I thought. There goes the big rock’n’roll ending where I smash all my gear up.

The jazz band finished their set to be greeted by polite applause by about five people. They gathered behind their instruments for a fag as I set up my mike, then I joined them for a nerve-settling smoke. The pianist, a friendly chap, seemed completely unfazed as to the indifference of their reception, stating, “It’s always the same with these gigs”, before asking me what I was about to do. When I replied that I was a stand-up comedian, he almost choked with shock. The other members of the band looked at me with horrified faces before earnestly expressing how brave I was and how they wished me luck.

Now, as a comedian you are constantly being told how brave you are. Most people seem so petrified of public speaking that they elevate it in their minds to a level of apprehension it just doesn’t deserve. I’ve had a fireman, who, lest we forget, has to walk into burning buildings to rescue people, tell me I’m brave.

On this occasion, however, the assertion of my courage was not based in ignorance, but on the fact that even a layman, in comic terms, could see that I had my work cut out. The band could play, ignored, safe in the knowledge that they were merely employed to add ambience. But I was employed to entertain, and I would need their attention.

I stepped up to the mike, saying, “Hello ladies and gentleman, listen, there’s gonna be a stand-up comic on for your entertainment soon, so have a seat and gather round”. About six or seven people turned their heads, then went back to their conversations.

I waited a few minutes, before plastering on my best “Mr Saturday Night” smile, walking up to mike once again and beginning my act.

About a dozen of the hundred or so people there actually clapped as I stepped up. I tried some patter, before hitting them with an off the cuff comment about our surroundings.

“This is a bit weird, eh? All this decking, these huge sheets of awning…it’s like doing a gig in B&Q!”

With that, one of the few men listening made a big show of rolling his eyes at me before turning back to his drink.

It took at least a few minutes of talking before most people even realised I was on. Slowly their conversations dwindled and they looked over at me, their expressions a mix of confusion and mild annoyance. Who was this hairy, Northern upstart who had the barefaced insolence to interrupt their evening?

I continued to fire my jokes at them, although gradually their annoyance turned not to affection and laughter but to indifference again. The chatter resumed, quietly at first but then louder and louder, almost as if to spite me for having had the nerve to disturb them.

At this juncture, just to underline the pointlessness of what I was doing, an ambulance went past. I was stood about ten or fifteen metres from the road and the noise from the siren, with no walls or windows to deflect it, was deafening. I paused until it had passed and continued blithely on, only to be heckled about thirty seconds later - by a man walking down the street. It was a very casual heckle too; he simply strolled along the pavement near the restaurant, screamed “WANKER!”, and kept on walking. It’s very hard to defeat a heckler with a scathing putdown when he is, effectively, just using the back of your gig as a right of way.

I kept ploughing gallantly on, but was thinking of giving it up as a bad job when I suddenly became aware of a stream of steady laughter coming from my left. I turned to find a pocket of about fifteen people sat around a large table and realised that, God bless them, they were really enjoying it. I told a few more gags, and again the laughter came, this time with a little applause. By now, whether I realised it consciously or not, I had turned my body towards them, and my back on the rest of the crowd. I was performing just to them. I was like the comedic equivalent of table magic.

I did about another twenty minutes just to this table, and both they and I had a great time. It felt as though I was storming this tiny gig – an exclusive gig that was, strangely, being held in the middle of a busy crowd, oblivious to its existence. It was a surreal experience to say the least, but actually a lot of fun.

I wrapped up and immediately the people at the table called me over. They were a bunch of very friendly Irish folk who insisted on getting me drunk (which took little persuasion). As the band piped up again and the first of many pints of Guinness was plonked in front of me, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. What could have been a soul destroying gig had actually come up trumps.

Well, in a way. Generally speaking I do aim to have more than 10-15% of my audience listening and laughing, but then generally speaking I don’t have obstacles to overcome like I did on that night. Normally the crowds I play to want to laugh. That’s what they’ve come out for. So I actually felt quite justified, maybe even a little smug, that those who decided to have a listen found the experience worthwhile.

Of course, I’ve done worse gigs in terms of how I’ve been received, but this stands alone as my weirdest gig, if only for the inappropriateness of putting a comedian on in that setting. Still, it was a good skin-thickener and I got the money, so who cares…

Peace. X

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What a tangled web we weave

In today’s fast paced world, it as often easy to take even the most monumental, significant and frankly astounding things completely and utterly in our stride. This blog is my modest attempt to shake mankind out of its collective complacency and force it to acknowledge one of the wonders it has achieved. In something of a coup of relevance, I will even use the object of my awe as the means of expressing it.

I refer, of course, to the Internet (and I have used a capital “I” on purpose).

The Internet is, frankly, amazing. No, actually it’s more amazing than the word amazing can convey. When I think about it, it has to go down as one of the most truly gobsmacking things I have ever borne witness to. The sheer volume of information we can now relay to each other at the push of a button or the click of a mouse is actually quite frightening, almost beyond comprehension. One can read, watch, hear, learn and find out about almost anything.


I try to shrug this feeling off, to treat the Internet as just another technological convenience, like cash machines, or digital watches, or the George Forman grill – a simple tool to make our lives easier. But every now and then the full enormity of what it represents washes over me like a wave, making me feel giddy and a little dizzy.

This is where the “Age of Information” begins to scare me a little. There really is too much information in the world now. We cannot, as mere mortals, hope for a second to process all this data. Our brains and senses do not interface that quickly. We are all doomed to drown in an ocean of facts, figures and opinions.

Have we gone to far? Is our compulsion to know all there is to know finally destined to burn us?

On balance, I think not.

For a start, I’m not sure that there is as much information as we presume. With so many websites dedicated to the same topics, some of it is surely repeating or reiterating itself, and so cannot be said to be truly adding to the total. It’s also worth noting that at least 50% of the web is taken up by pictures of people in various degrees on undress engaged in activities ranging from the mildly titillating to the downright obscene. Interesting, for a plethora of reasons, but hardly educational.

Also, I have a suspicion that the whole thing has begun to eat itself (and I’m not referring to something I saw in the pictures I mentioned – although that would be impressive). I found out recently that Teletext has a website. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but Teletext is a website. In fact, it was the first ever website. A basic one, granted, but it’s pages of information navigated via a simple point and click interface (i.e. the buttons on your remote). That’s where we’re at now – we have websites of websites, like some technological tautology.

But the real clincher, the thing that convinces me that actually everything is going to be okay, is that I’m sure I can’t be the only one who has sat at a computer, online, with the collected knowledge of mankind literally at his fingertips, and thought, “God, I’m bored”. The Internet is, for me, the shining epitome of mankind’s achievement as a species – but sometimes, for whatever trivial reason, we just can’t be fucked with it.

But our poor attention spans will be our saviour from information meltdown. It is this simple flaw that will save us – and I think it amply demonstates the unique and beautiful contradictions that make up humanity. Ultimately, our feet of clay may well prove to be our salvation.

Peace. X

Monday, December 11, 2006

More ramblings on tea... inspired by a conversation with my mate Rich, over a steaming mug of said beverage.

Basically, I was extolling the virtues of the great British cuppa when he hit me with it. "You see, Ben", he said, stirring his mug playfully, "you know where you are with tea drinkers. They're alright. But coffee drinkers...", he left a dramatic pause and arched his eyebrow, " can't trust coffee drinkers".

I was sufficiently intrigued to ask him to explain further, and he elaborated thus. The thrust of his argument was that tea drinkers are laid back, honest to God, salt of the earth people, where as coffee drinkers are by and large crabby, ill tempered, devious, self-serving ratbags. I laughed initially at the sweeping generalisation of this theory, but, having given myself time to mull on it, it does stand up to further scrutiny.

Go somewhere where tea is being drunk and people will be relaxed and welcoming. The conversation, if there is one, will be lofty, noble and philosophical. If there is no conversation, then people will be indulging in a moment's silent contemplation, musing over the important issues of the day, such as whether to have custard creams or bourbons.

Go to where coffee is being served, however, and the atmosphere will be tense, terse and cutthroat. The conversation will be bitchy and the whole ambience will be so fraught with understated ill-intent that one is forced to either tactfully retreat or down a few cups and join in the passive-aggressive melee.

Don't believe me yet? Think about it. High-powered business people drink coffee at board meetings. It's the perfect drink to foster that ruthless, materialistic, I'm-all-right-Jack outlook that serves them so well when sealing that million dollar deal.

Still don't believe me? Try going to your local Starbucks, especially early in the morning when commuters on their way to work are queuing for that pick-me-up to get them through to their first break. Note the mood in the queue; people will look desperate, frantic, twitchy and irritable. By the time they reach the counter, bloodshot and hurting, they will be so overcome with anticipation of that hot, black elixir they will be literally foaming at the mouth. I'm reasonably convinced that this is how the cappuccino was invented.

Once they get the wretched stuff inside them, however, the change is marked and disturbing. They become almost maniacally animated, bolting off down the street like the over-confident vulgarians they have inevitably become. At least until the effect wears off and the whole terrifying cycle begins again.

It's disturbing how, as soft-drug use often leads to hard-drug use, so we have graduated from our milder coffees to the more potent continental ones. The Italians especially have an impressively powerful repertoire of coffees at their disposal. This perhaps explained why they are such intense and animated people. Such is their predilection for gesticulation that for many years I thought that everyone in Italy was deaf.

But the Italians have been drinking this stuff for years and have become hardened to it. When it comes into contact with our more fragile constitutions it plays havoc.

Take espresso, for example. This hellish potion, which is comprised of two parts diesel oil and one part crack, has to be treated with the utmost respect at all times. More than a few mouthfuls and you will be up all night, wide eyed and wired. When you have finished cleaning the entire house (twice) and sorting your CD collection into alphabetical order, you will spend the hours until sunrise babbling as you chew through your own limbs.

So, the next time someone offers you a coffee, look them straight and the eye and, with all the righteous outrage you can muster, demand they get a brew on.

Peace. X