the real risks of whoring

I’m enjoying Leicester.

The Flashback show was brilliant last night. I’m really loving the complete lack of pressure on me in the whole thing. Unlike a scurvy show where if I’m not brilliant then it makes both me and the whole thing look bad, this is a no-lose situation: if I get the sound cues right and my little cameo goes well, it’s great; but if I fuck up it doesn’t really matter because nothing I can do can really mess up the whole show, and even if it did, it’s not my name or my face on the poster this time round. If things go horribly wrong, nobody who sees the show will ever remember me. It’s like doing a striptease in a mask so nobody knows it’s you. There’s no risk of my personal ‘credibility’ being lost.

What this means is that I don’t have to worry about committing my heart to the act like I do with my stand-up – I can do my little cameo bit, with the silly accent and blank expression and the slapstick pratfall, and just really enjoy doing it. So even though I haven’t really ever done any proper clowning or physical comedy before, I think the lack of pressure comes out in the performance and it’s been getting really good laughs…

Anyway, after the show we all went out in Leicester, where we ended up at a bizarre club night called the Imaginarium. Which was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever been to. It was a kind of burlesque-themed night where lots of people had dressed up and when we arrived the person on the door said, “the poetry brothel’s closing in ten minutes, so grab yourselves a whore.”

“Sorry?”

It turned out that one room was set aside as a ‘poetry brothel’. You went in, paid £3 and had a boy or girl in burlesque costume read you some poetry. Which I thought sounded interesting but potentially awful, because I like poetry a lot but it turned out to be the person’s own poetry. And I have read some really dire amateur poetry in my life.

As it turned out, the poet I got – called something like ‘Miss Mary’ or ‘Mistress Mary’ – was really, really good. I was a bit drunk at the time so annoyingly I can’t remember much of the poems she read, but the first one had some brilliant alliteration with consonents clattering sweetly on top of each other; and when she asked what kind of poetry I liked and I asked for something with a strong rhythm, she read one about a person succumbing to alzheimer’s that had a line in it about a ‘backwards sphinx’, which is such a good image that I could still remember it this morning. And then that was my time up and I had to go back out to find the others.

And it left me wondering about the different circumstances in which people are prepared to reveal parts of themselves. I’ve had this idea, which I think I’ve mentioned before, that stand-up is similar in many ways to striptease – it’s just a different part of the artist is being revealed. But whether it’s in jokes or poetry or stripping, the dynamic is different when it becomes a commodity. As soon as money is handed over, the personal risk, the part of yourself that you put into it, is disrupted somehow – in Marx’s terms, we’re alienated from the product of our labour, even when that product is something that would normally be deeply personal, like humour or sex or poetry. The paradox is that it’s precisely this lack of personal risk that frees you up to commit to it completely, because the danger of humiliation is mitigated slightly – it’s like the mask I mentioned earlier.

But poetry is a special case. People say stand-up is brave; even Simon Critchley – who is, in my humble opinion, the world’s most insightful philosopher of humour – told me in a reply to an email I wrote him that he thought that stand-up was ‘the hardest thing in the world’. But as long as it gets laughs, stand-up isn’t that hard or brave because the personal trauma that is revealed is cloaked in laughs. But poetry is much more naked, and the self-ness of it is guarded only by rhythm and metaphor.

I’ve written bad poetry myself before, and I even occasionally try (and often fail) to do slightly poetic things with my stand-up. But I’ve only once read my honest poetry for an audience, and it was horrible. I wouldn’t subject anyone to it unless they were a poet themselves, or specifically asked for it because they honestly wanted to know what was really going on in my brain; and even then I’d be quite likely to warn them about the dangers of that first.

So I think if you’re a good poet, reading your poetry to people, or letting them read it, is the hardest thing in the world. Even for money, the personal risk is just too great. And considering how relieved I am at the moment to just be getting laughs from turning up in my friends’ show and doing a comedy falling-over because it contains no personal risk, I’ve got to give ‘Mary’ credit for that.

(I heard some of the other poets weren’t that good. They don’t get that credit…)

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leicester flashbacks

I’m on a train to the Leicester Comedy Festival.

This is, all at once, surprising, relieving, exciting and intimidating: surprising because I didn’t plan to come to Leicester this year until Rik and Fraser from the 80’s Movie Flashback (who I blogged about back in Edinburgh) cornered me at Kate and David’s wedding a week or two ago and offered me a cameo role in their reworked show. Which they were bringing to Leicester. And to which I said an emphatic yes, even before they had told me what it would involve (more on this later).

The relief is because it means I’ve got something to keep me busy this weekend while Nan is in the air flying to Thailand. She’s going to stay with people there, and then in China, for the next couple of months. And the problem is not so much that I’ll miss her (which of course I will) but that I hate planes and will spend the next day and a half until she arrives being semi-convinced that she’s either dead or wounded up a mountain range considering a re-enactment of the film Alive. I went with her to Heathrow this morning, and spent as much time watching the airport security people (in the hope that they were doing their jobs properly and not letting ANYONE through) as I did saying goodbye to her.

Anyway, so doing Leicester with the Flashback will keep my mind on the ground and off cannibalism. Essentially all they need me to do is some straightforward tech-ing, and then come on and do a Manuel-in-fawlty-towers-style gormless-turn for a few minutes; but they are all so lovely to work with, and the show is such beautifully shambolic fun, that I would have done it even if all they wanted was for me to come on stage and be shat on. (Which actually isn’t far off what I’m doing). Plus it feels wonderful to do such a frivolous thing as to be genuinely liberated from the insane ego-inflating-bursting-cartwheel that is normal stand-up.

Also, it meant two bonus points: the first was being involved with a show at the Hen and Chickens Theatre last night in Highbury – where the show went well, the stars were great, and my cameo actually seemed to get good laughs – and having a proper reason to come up to Leicester.

Which is why I’m excited. There have been a few comedy festivals that have either started or expanded rapidly in te last few years, in competition with each other to become the second-biggest comedy festival on the calendar (after Edinburgh of course) and Leicester is arguably winning. Well, coming second. But that still makes it worth coming to.

The only intimidating part is that the last time I came to Leicester it was on the 17th December 1995; I was a teenage Norwich City fan; and this happened.

We got beaten, lost our brilliant manager to the team that beat us, and the winning goal was scored by “the 17-year-old substitute Emile Heskey.” Who had come on in the second half and humiliated us. At the end of that season, Leicester were promoted to the Premier League and Norwich have stayed roughly where they are ever since. Well, at least until we got relegated again.

And that is all my previous experience of Leicester.

So I’ll let you know how this weekend goes…