time in northampton

Sometimes the passing of time doesn’t concern me, and sometimes it does.

I left my Dad and Jenny on the boat in Reading (which, by the way, seems to look like a bizarre patchwork of run-down 1980s helltown and 1990s architect’s model of a perfect waterside metropolis) and have now come to Northampton.

Northampton, for those of you who don’t know this, is where I grew up and where my Mum and a good handful of my real friends still live.

And this afternoon I went to visit my friend Natalie, who recently pulled off the quite impressive trick of squeezing a real live brand-new human out of her cervix.

She’s looking pretty good for it; and the baby is looking very lovely too. But – and I know this is a banal thing to say, but I’m going to say it anyway – I couldn’t help but be surprised by how quickly we’ve gone from sitting in school classrooms together as 16-year-olds to being thirty and Natalie having bought a house and becoming a mother.

And I was telling Natalie’s boyfriend Matt about how the sixth-formers I teach now don’t believe me when I say that when I was in the sixth form nobody had mobile phones. (“So how did you text each other?” they ask, completely straight-faced.)

And we talked about how the music we listened to as kids – 2Unlimited, Nirvana, Oasis even – has the same kind of historical relevance to today’s teenagers as, say, ABBA did for us, in that it’s now retro music that came out around or before the time they were born.

And we sat there terrified for a few minutes.

I walked home from Natalie’s – past the streets I lived on when I was growing up; past the county cricket ground with its big new stands that were never there when I was a kid; and through Abington Park. The park is packed full of memories, of course, and particularly so because it’s the first week of the school holidays and was swarming with feral teenagers, just as it used to be when I was one myself.

I bought a cappuccino at the Abington Park cafe (you could never have got one of those back when it was called The Old Oak) and I stopped to look at the ‘aviary’.

For some reason, in Abington Park there is a path, which is flanked on either side by rusting cages full of ‘exotic’ birds: canaries, parakeets, and so on, that seem completely unchanged since my first memories of them nearly thirty years ago.

The grand finale of the little ornithological spectacle was always the peacocks. Such majestic birds! Except that the peacocks in Abington Park hardly ever showed their feathers. In almost all of my memories of them, they just sat there, feathers tucked away, doing nothing.

And today they were still sitting there, almost exactly the same. There they were, trapped and bored like everyone else by Northampton and its sprawling wasteland of houses and industrial estates; its nothingness in the very middle of the very middle of the Midlands; trapped there like so many of my friends, for whom lowered ambitions and property super-inflation have kept them stuck, wings clipped, in this godforsaken characterless nothingness of a town.

And I thought about the passing of time again, and didn’t know whether to be frightened or relieved.

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man and bull

I have two all-time favourite jokes.

The first is: Why did the girl fall off the swing? Because she had no arms.

The other one is this: A wealthy businessman visits Barcelona. In an expensive restaurant next to the bullring, he asks for the chef’s speciality. “Si, Senor!” says the waiter, and brings him two large, slightly salty spheres in broth, explaining that they are the testicles of the bull killed in that afternoon’s bullfight. The businessman is a little disgusted at first, but eats them anyway – and they are delicious.

A few months later the businessman visits Barcelona again, goes to the restaurant and asks for the chef’s speciality again. “Si, Senor!” exclaims the waiter, and brings him two bull’s testicles which are even larger and more delicious than the previous time.

A few months later he visits Barcelona again, goes to the same restaurant and orders the chef’s speciality with great excitement. But this time the waiter brings him a bowl in which the testicles are much smaller and more bitter than before. “Waiter!” the businessman asks, “What is going on here?”

“Ah, Senor,” says the waiter, “The bull – he does not always lose.”

This joke is perfect in every possible way: it has cultural stereotypes, genitals, a perfect rule of three, and a wealthy businessman gets his comeuppance.

Now I’m going to have to bloody change it, because of this campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalunya, which is what this blog is really about.

The thing is, it’s a great thing for Catalan independence, which I am wholeheartedly in favour of. But I’d have a lot more respect for the whole thing if they just said they want to signify a rejection of traditional Spanish customs, and stopped pretending that it’s anything to do with animal welfare.

Very few people really give a crap about animals; bovines in particular. The fact that the Catalan campaign has used all kinds of emotive language about ‘the distress that the bulls suffer’, or ‘how terrible it is that up to six bulls can be killed in an afternoon’, is incredibly annoying given how few of the assembly members who passed the motion yesterday are actually likely to be vegetarians.

And bullfighting – or corrida, to give it its proper name – is, I think, more respectable, more honest and more beautiful than eating meat.

I’m not criticizing meat-eating; I’m not even a vegetarian. Although I used to be one – kept it up for six years, in fact – and I learned two very useful pieces of information from it:

1) humans don’t need to eat meat to survive or be healthy. Quite the opposite in fact – we’re not really evolved for it the way lions or tigers are (lions have intestinal tracts which are relatively short, to quickly get rid of rotting meat; whereas humans, like other herbivores, have intestines which are much much longer in order to get as many nutrients as possible out of fruit and nuts etc.) No, we do it purely because it’s enjoyable. And BOY, is it enjoyable! I made a really delicious pasta bolognese last night. Mmmmm.

2) Unless you rear and slaughter the animals yourself, as humanely as you possibly can, it’s very likely that the animals you’re eating have suffered pretty horrible, torturous, and mercifully short lives. Cows often live in pretty cramped conditions and then go to slaughter on cattle production lines, where each animal gets an electric shock which, if it’s lucky, will numb it (though this doesn’t always work) and if it doesn’t fully work it has to watch the animals in front of it get their arteries cut. Then it is killed itself.

Which means that an honest carnivore, like I try to be, ought to never forget that they are causing plenty of suffering and death to animals, purely for our own pleasure.

For me, this is not so hard to live with; I am unashamedly what Peter Singer calls ‘speciesist‘. Singer uses the term in a derogatory way, but I do think humans are better than cows. We – or at least, most of us – are smarter, more resourceful, we have an ability to use conceptual reasoning, a sense of aesthetic value, and the ability to understand ourselves as conscious beings in time who project ourselves from our past towards hopes and aspirations in the future. If you killed and ate a human, you would be taking away its chances of living out its creative projects and its aspirations; the things that give our lives meaning. Whereas the only hopes and aspirations that a cow has for its future is to have another munch on its breakfast. And to be honest, it probably doesn’t even think very much about that until it actually happens.

So I can face the idea of eating cows, or pigs or sheep for that matter, without feeling too bad about it. They’re idiots. But it doesn’t mean they won’t suffer and then die, purely for my culinary entertainment.

But most meat-eaters, in towns and cities at least, seem to be in denial about this; for most of them, it’s as if the meat they’re eating has come magically out of the ground or a factory or tesco’s, and they are able to eat their meat, which they regard as necessary, without thinking at all about what was involved in its production. And as long as they don’t see the suffering they can pretend it’s not happening.

I suspect the main reason the corrida is so unpopular, at least among carnivores, is that in the bullfight there is no such self-denial about the suffering of the animal.

But the corrida goes further: in bullfighting, both the toro and the toreador are celebrated – almost deified – for their elegance and strength in the way they look death and pain full in the face, and still carry on fighting for life.

In fact, I think the two most important things that the corrida has that carnivorism doesn’t are that firstly, in bullfighting suffering and pain and death are acknowledged not just as necessary conditions of life, but as actually having the potential to be an aesthetic experience; they are elevated to the level of high art (as opposed to the mere industrial functionality of the slaughterhouse).

And secondly, in bullfighting the toro does actually stand a fighting chance, which it wouldn’t get in a slaughterhouse. Although I’d like to see it happen: if every animal had to be killed in person by a slaughterman with sword. And any time the cow doesn’t lose, somebody ordering a Big Mac has to eat a slaughterman’s balls.

Anyway. Like all good jokes, and particularly the jokes I started the blog with, bullfighting is honest and admirable because it does not shy away from suffering, does not deny it. The girl fell of the swing because she has no arms! When you think about it, this is an awful thing to happen. But we laugh because we do not deny its awfulness; we affirm it, we are grateful that the girl is not us, and laughing helps us cope with the fact that perhaps it could have been. Equally, when the toreador is gored as he makes the killer blow, we stare in fear and horror – but fans of the corrida do not look away. They watch because they understand that they are mortal and they can suffer too; they are grateful that today, the suffering is not theirs. The experience is life-affirming.

Well, not in Barcelona any more. Which is fine; some places don’t need bullfighting to affirm life (in England, for example, we have cricket instead – that is warfare enough for our temperament). Barcelona doesn’t need it either; it’s a Spanish interest and Catalunya is not Spain.

But banning it under the pretense that they are somehow acting ‘morally’, in the interests of the animals? In politics too, the bull (in both senses of that word) does not always lose.

one of the dark places of the earth

Last night we left the canal and joined the Thames.

I had an argument with a girlfriend once, about whether the Thames could be counted as ‘great rivers of the world.’ It was a foolish argument, the kind of thing that lovers argue about when they can’t face whatever it is they really need to be arguing about; but I remember it vividly.

We were in Paris, and I’d claimed, without really thinking, that the Seine, like the Thames, was ‘one of the great rivers of the world’, and she said it couldn’t be because even though the Seine – and the Thames too – have got some interesting human settlements on them, they are nowhere near as long as the Amazon or the Mississippi. And I pointed out that length isn’t everything, and to her credit she resisted the obvious barb and said it is when you’re talking about what makes a river ‘great’.

But somehow it became quite an unpleasant argument. Like I say, there were probably other things we really should have been arguing about.

The point is, I still think I was right. Obviously we were just using different standards of ‘greatness’ (she was using a fairly narrow geological measure of value, wheras I was linking it to human culture and history). And however dumb it might seem, we weren’t the first people to have that same argument – when John Burns famously called the Thames “liquid history”, it was in response to American who had compared it unfavourably with the Mississippi (which is good, because on its own it would be a bit of a fatuous thing to say from an otherwise remarkably smart fellow).

But the Thames is a strange and wonderful river; when you’re travelling down it you do feel like you’re re-travelling a very very ancient and beautiful path that hasn’t really changed in three thousand years.

I think one of the reasons that my lover in Paris might have held the Thames to be of less value – in addition to its size, although it is the longest river in England – is that it’s so familiar. We know the Thames, we know where it goes and what its banks look like (idyllically rural – from Oxford on, it’s almost all trees and cottages and cows and pretty towns until you hit London). Unlike the Amazon, there is little that is exotic or strange about it for us.

But that’s just because of the perspective we’re looking at it from. As Marlow says of the Thames in the opening pages of Heart of Darkness, “this also was once one of the dark places of the earth.” For anyone trying to get into England – the Romans in particular – the Tamesis was, for centuries, a strange and terrifying river, wide and deep and with a danger of tribal attacks around every turn. For one of Claudius’ men trying to get inland in the first century, It must have been terrifying.

Perhaps we’ve become numbed to that now.

And yet, there are still strange and terrifying experiences to be had on the Thames for those who look. Between Oxford and Reading, we passed bunches of the kinds of houses and gardens that people are only supposed to live in when they have won the lottery. But the people who live in them, with their twenty-room mansions and huge riverside summer-houses and boat-houses, live in an entirely different world to me. The fact that these folk are wealthy enough to live next to the river meant that we were able to see, from the river, into a world that I would normally very rarely see.

What did they do to come to posess such houses and gardens? Where did all that wealth come from, and where is it going? Who has been, and who is yet to be, harmed in the process? What darknesses are hidden in that money and that power?

(I’m not saying wealth is necessarily bad; I’m just saying that for those who don’t have it but who do ask questions about the causes and effects of it, it is very strange and a little terrifying.)

I love the Thames; my family have lived on and around it forever, and I will always think that it is one of the great rivers on earth. But for most of us, it still contains strange, dark worlds that are impossible for proletarian explorers to penetrate.

on the surface of the water

I’m still on my Dad’s narrowboat, somewhere north of Oxford.

When I mention to people that my father has a boat, the usual reaction seems to be to assume that he must be very wealthy. In fact, it’s the opposite: he got the thing – the Lady Elizabeth, it’s called – for about five or six thousand pounds in 1983 and lived on it for a big chunk of my childhood, because he was on a science teacher’s salary with a divorce and two kids to pay for, and it was cheaper than living in a house.

But when he finally moved back onto land again, he kept it; not just as a frivolous luxury status item, but because for him not to have a boat would mean he would not be the man he is.

The Elizabeth, her travels and her upkeep, are a lifetime’s project for him. It’s a 63-foot extension of his personality. When I arrived at the boat yesterday morning, and I asked how he was, he said, “Well, I’ve had diesel bugs in the tank.”

(Diesel bugs, he explained, are tiny little bugs that live in diesel tanks, and breed at the kind of terrifying rate that pandas don’t. You don’t see them in diesel cars because they are burned up quickly, but in a vehicles with large tanks that sometimes doesn’t go anywhere for a few weeks – like narrowboats – millions of them reproduce and then die and leave a black sludge of diesel bug corpses that clogs up the engine. Fortunately, if there’s one thing that canal-folk know about, it’s how to dispose of corpses).

Anyway, boating is who my father is, boating of any and all varieties; he has been spending most of his free time on water since he went a boy, canoing and sailing dinghys and yachts as a student. I once sat with him and a map, trying to figure out if there was anywhere on the south coast of England that he hadn’t been to on some sailing expedition or other. There wasn’t.

But the most remarkable thing is the kind of feeling he has for the water itself. He says he’s always found it difficult trying to explain to people how to steer a boat, because he does it without thinking.

We were at a lock yesterday, waiting for another boat coming through the lock the other way. He seemed to be letting the Lady Elizabeth drift backwards, with the back end floating slowly towards the bank, to let the other boat pass. It looked like we were going to crash into the bank. Aren’t we going backwards a bit too fast, I asked?

“No,” he said, “the undercurrent from the lock will pull us forward in a minute.”

And slowly, almost magically, the boat stopped drifting back and came to a stop just before the edge. Then he gently nudged the reverse again to keep us from being pulled into the drag from the other boat as it passed us, and then forwards to glide us into the lock.

It might be that he’s got a physics degree and so he always knows what energies are pulling which way and why; but I think it’s more that he can just instinctively feel the water moving beneath the boat. The thing about boating is that even on canals there are so many deep channels and currents that you don’t see but that you have to feel, because you need to make the right slow, subtle movements, at the right time, to keep the boat steady and on course.

And it’s not easy to keep the boat steady like that when the water is moving all around and beneath you. I can’t do it; I always make too many rash motions, always overreact to every sideways drift. (My mother’s son.)

But my Dad always knows just which motions to make with the tiller and when, how much momentum is needed in every direction, to keep a 63-foot hulk of steel chugging steadily along.

It’s a strange family that my father comes from. Full of doctorates, political activists, intellectuals, transexual jazz musicians, you name it. When I was younger, I naturally compared my father – a teacher who likes boating and tea and biscuits – with the rest of his family. And I have to admit I wondered if maybe he was a little bit ordinary, a bit superficial.

I know now, of course, that’s not true – only a man with an acute awareness of what ferocious churning is happening in the depths could stay so steady; calmly and peacefully moving across the surface of the water…

completion-phobia

I’m lucky, of course, in the sense that the only real problem I have is that I’m trying to record an album of songs but I can’t seem to finish it.

(Well, only one real problem if you were to disregard the little matter of my bank balance. And, I suppose, the fact that I am currently homeless. And the whole thing of having an addiction to stand-up comedy that tends to pose a major challenge to all my relationships with other people. And…I’ll come in again…)

I’m lucky in the sense that the problem which presents itself most clearly to me is that I am trying to record an album of songs which I can’t seem to finish.

They aren’t funny songs or anything (not like Tom McDonnell’s smashing ‘Dr. Jones’ song that’s been circulating the internet); they’re just songs I’ve written. Which I suppose brings me out of the closet as – whisper it – a secret wannabe pop singer. But most of you probably knew that anyway; what stand-up comedian isn’t, deep down, either a failed pop star or a failed actor?

But it’s been four years since I finished the last album I did, and it’s about bloody time I finished another one. It’s frustrating because it feels so close to being done, but it just isn’t quite there.

It’s all because of perfectionism and fear, of course; I’ve spent so long on the bloody thing that I think it HAS to be brilliant, or at least as good as it could possibly be. The trouble is, I’ve spent so long on it that I’ve got new songs I’ve written queueing up to be recorded; but I can’t start on recording them because I have to finish this album first. I’ve possibly even developed a kind of Stockholm-syndromey affection for this fear; I almost don’t want to finish it because of the freedom it would force on me if I do get it finished.

But I really need to finish it and get it ‘out there’ by Edinburgh; beyond that and it will be too late.

So with that in mind, I brought my laptop and guitar with me today to Banbury where I met my Dad – and Jenny, my sister – on the narrowboat. There isn’t much to do on the boat, and we’ll be spending the next few days chugging quietly down rivers and canals through remote bits of Oxfordshire. Perfect conditions, I thought, for me to finish off this album.

Now I’ve arrived, I’ve realised that it’s not so perfect after all. There are lock gates to open every ten minutes; there is a constant chugging of a big diesel engine and the quacking of ducks; and I’ve forgotten to bring any plectrums…

travelling

I’ve got a kind of routine for this time of year, nowadays.

The school year ends and then, just before I go to Edinburgh, I spend two weeks sleeping in different parts of the world.

There’s a few reasons for this. The most obvious one is that I only have these few weeks to spend any time at all with my friends and family, so I have to fit trips into Northampton, Wales, and whichever part of the UK waterways network my Dad has taken his canal boat to, as well as any other trips, abroad or otherwise, that I might have planned. But I’m also exhausted. And so I go to a place, and spend most of the time in a kind of dozy haze, get on a train to the next place, snooze all the way, and then sleep again when I arrive.

The sleeping’s not a problem, though, compared with how good it is to be moving. Partly because it’s good to get out of London at this time of year – it’s hot and sticky and it stinks (any Londoner who tells you London doesn’t stink in the summer should probably move to a less boring part of London).

But mainly, just moving around is good. Some people are itinerants by nature, and I get edgy staying in one place too long. There’s no way I’d have lived in London for this long if it weren’t for the fact that a) London has whole worlds to explore in it, b) doing stand-up quite frequently gets me all over the country in the evenings, and c) teachers get these kind of holidays where it’s actually possible to go places sometimes.

I’m also taking a kind of perverse joy in the fact that I suppose I’m technically homeless at the moment. I moved out of my house and I’ve been staying this week in my sister and brother-in-law’s flat in Stoke Newington. Which is very nice of them; plus I like Stoke Newington; plus it’s saving me some rent money…

That’s money that I need for other things, after all: tonight I went down to King’s Cross station and picked up so many pre-booked train tickets that I couldn’t close my wallet again afterwards. That was good.

Tomorrow I’m getting an early train up to Banbury, where my Dad’s boat is. It’s not far to travel but it will do for now. Then we travel down the canal, southwards.

Perhaps it’s genetic…

return of the mac

I’m back.

I’ve been without any kind of computer for the last few days – thanks to a dangerously burned-through macbook charger cable – and it drove me nuts. This was especially infuriating because, having not blogged for ages, about a million ideas for great blogs popped into my head and I badly wanted to write, but just couldn’t get them down. By last night, I finally gave up and spent fifty bloody quid on a new macbook charger cable.

Which means that now, of course, I can’t remember a single thing I wanted to write.

Still, I want to start writing this blog more regularly again. This is mainly because I’m going up to Edinburgh for the festival again in two weeks time, and I will BADLY need it when I’m up there.

In fact, what seemed last year to be the documentation of a gradual slide into Edinburgh insanity, was probably the only thing that actually kept me sane. (If you didn’t read any of my blogs from last year’s run, but really want to – for whatever reason – they start here.)

So anyway, I will try to keep blogging every day through the festival again. This year’s Edinburgh will probably be very different, though, for the following reasons:

1. My act has improved so much in the last year that I’m not scared of it any more;

2. Rather than doing the kind of Scurvy ‘lunchtime’ shows which I worried so much about the quality of – and about my own quality in them – I’m just doing one evening showcase show (which I will be co-promoting with the very lovely Timmy Manners), and doing my little cameo role bit in the 80s Movie Flashback show;

3. I will be living with Rik, Fraser and Rachel from the Flashback, who are all phenomenally laid-back, easy-going people to be around. Which is not to say that Tony and Loz weren’t brilliant to be around as well (they were) but it might be a little less…alcoholic.

So, Edinburgh should be fun.

On a separate note, it’s worth mentioning that the last ever Scurvy Wednesday happened successfully – and without melodrama – the other night. James Sherwood and Andy Zaltzman did Edinburgh previews; I didn’t even perform.

Which was fine; after all, I have no shortage of stagetime coming up…