on love – from stand-up philosophy

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poor and happy

Contrary to popular belief, London is a great place to be skint.

I mean, I’m only temporarily skint because I thought I was going to get paid on Friday and wasn’t, which left me with £6 to last me almost a week. And I think London is a very difficult place to be permanently poor.

But there’s SO much to do here for little or no money that I sometimes wonder why I bother spending money at all.

Yesterday I made a packed lunch (total cost: £1.20), got a bendybus (obviously) from my house to Trafalgar Square, and walked over the river to the National Theatre bookshop where I spent an hour quite happily sitting around reading Aristophanes’ Clouds and a bunch of books about comic performance.

Then I walked back up to Trafalgar Square to the National Gallery where I spent ages with the Velasquez paintings;

and also this incredible painting by Philips Koninck (it’s just called ‘Extensive Landscape with a Road by a River’). It’s a fairly ordinary landscape but the canvas is huge – and just look at all that sky! It takes up almost two-thirds of the picture! It’s incredible, there is so much openness in it…

Anyway, then I got another bendybus to the house in Finsbury Park where I used to live, where my friends gave me tea and nuts and tolerated my ill-qualified relationship advice; and then home to listen to the Manic Street Preachers’ new LP (which is, incidentally, outstanding) on spotify. Which, to be fair, I pay £10 a month for so I don’t have to get advertised at, but that’s still ridiculously cheap considering that a few years ago I’d have paid more than that for the Manics album alone.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Today I’m thinking I might go for a walk around Regent’s Park, or go to a free comedy gig, or treat myself to a £1.50 film at the Prince Charles Cinema, or go to the Tate Modern, or the British Museum, or the library…

day 21: too tired to be that great

It’s getting near the end of the run, and I’m so tired.

I drank nothing more than orange juice the night before, so I felt pretty good but still exhausted when it came time to go and see Dave Gibson’s early afternoon ‘Ray Green’ show. Now, Dave is a man with a great comedy face. His expressions are just so good and his show, while perhaps a little over-reliant on video clips, is superb. No doubt I’d rave about it more if I hadn’t seen Eric and Sanderson the previous day, but hey – context is everything. Still, Dave is brilliant and his show is an absolute cracker. Particularly the puppet bit at the end.

Then, after Fraser took Rik and I for lunch, I went off to the book festival to see my old university friend Steve Bloomfield talk about his book.

Annoyingly I couldn’t hang around because I had to go and flyer for the showcase, even though I wasn’t intending to perform in it. I had a show to go and see – more on that in a minute – and I thought that if I flyered enough to get a good audience in, booked Mark Restuccia to open, and left the rest with Timmy then everything would be fine.

It wasn’t. The few audience who turned up were idiots, and in particular there were some drunk mouthy scots at the back who kept shouting abuse at the stage. When I left, Timmy was into his tenth minute of valiantly trying to MC some life into a cold, hostile room, and Stooch was quite reasonably looking concerned.

I heard later that after the hecklers left, things were better, and that David Mulholland had actually had a pretty good headlining slot.

Still, at the time I had other things to concern me – namely, going to see Lady C at the GRV.

There is at least one adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the Fringe pretty much every year, and I have a personal tradition of trying to see them if I can. Not even for simply pervy reasons, either – surprisingly few adaptations contain anything close to explicit sex scenes or nudity, and the ones that do are generally either repulsive or hilarious or both. But I do really like the book, and seeing amateur adaptations of it has become a kind of weird hobby, like a collection. But Lady C wasn’t really an adaptation of the book; more a discussion of its publishing history and its effect on modern sexuality, done by three actors, often in the nude. It was also without doubt the most deliberately erotic Chatterley play I’ve seen, which made it a successful production, but only to the extent that that kind of thing can be. And I am led to understand that there are cheaper places to watch people stripping in Edinburgh, if that’s all people were there for. I was a bit disappointed that when one of the performers asked for a show of hands for who had actually read it, very few of us put our hands up. And the social politics of the book – without which the sex doesn’t really make much sense – was swept over a little too quickly. And sex without a wider politics attached to it is not really that sexy at all.

Still, it was at least more entertaining than watching my friends die onstage at the showcase.

I came out of Lady C with just enough to time to grab some chips and get down to meet the rest of the Flashback at the caves to finally see Doctor Brown’s show Because.

And what a show it is. I’d seen the end of it so many times but you need to see it from the start. It is really a work of genius. Everything I was saying about surprise and confidence the other day is played out so beautifully – the show is full of surprises. His tech, Jon, is also some kind of magician (he gets a lot of laughs just from his lighting and sound before anyone even appears onstage). By the end, I’d enjoyed the show so much that I didn’t even care that it had overrun or that I’d just found out how many laughs are gained from the bit that created the branflake-sweat-spore pond. In fact, it was a pleasure finally watching the mess get made at last…

In fact, I think we’d all enjoyed it a little too much. The Flashback show was fine, and the audience were a lot more generous than they had been the previous night; but it was possibly the least sharp performance for a while.

Ah well. I knew we’d pick it up for Friday. As long as we got enough sleep…

DRAW

day 20: bravery and bravado

There are different kinds of bravery.

I thought I was feeling brave by starting the day by going to see a play based on Tenessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. It was called ‘Laura’, it was on in the Hive (so was free), and it had got a four-star review from the New Current.

As it turns out, all you need to do to get four stars from the New Current is just have so many looooooong silences while two pretty young actors look around at the room and each other, that it’s a relief when they finally break into a dance routine at the end because at least it means something has happened. And I don’t even like dance. The acting was perfectly competent (I saw worse in the Old Vic’s production of The Tempest last month), but it took an hour for them to tell a story that could have been told in ten minutes. Dull.

Feeling like I needed some guaranteed quality, I went from there to watch Eric’s show Tales Of The Sea. I’ve been meaning to see it for years – and I’m so glad I finally did. It’s such a brilliant show and a story of bravery in so many different ways; not least because of the charm with which Eric underplays his own courage by talking quite humbly about what he perceives to be his lack of it. The stories about his submarine training and his fear of sharks are so endearing because the tales he presents as attempts at overcoming his own nerves are stories of things that the typical Edinburgh festival type wouldn’t go near in a million years.

There’s also a warning in it – one that might have come straight out of Plato or Aristotle, if they had ever been on a submarine – about the dangers of excessive, hubristic bravado.

But what is also brave is that Eric was prepared to spend so much time and effort on a show which, considering that he is a stand-up comedian, quite often goes for long periods without laughs. He says openly to the audience that a lot of his comedy show won’t be funny, but the unfunny bits are worth telling. That, too, takes balls.

And on the subject of having balls – massive, massive balls – Sanderson Jones is about as cojone-tastic as it gets. I went with the Flashback to see his show, Taking Liberties; and I think it might be the best thing I’ve seen this festival. I don’t want to say too much about the show, partly in case he tours it (in which case you HAVE TO SEE IT) and partly because it is now the subject of a police enquiry. That’s how ballsy it is. But for me it is an absolute masterclass in intelligent taboo-busting with moral purpose. He goes so far over the line of what would be acceptable for many comics that he gets away with it; I guess he’s like Chris Morris, only taller and beardier and very very charming. If there is one show I wish I could have done but couldn’t (partly because it would cost me my day job), it’s this one.

And on the subject of police enquiries (another pretty slick link, huh?), I also ran into David Whitney on my way home. I hadn’t really had a chance to chat to him at the previous night’s gig, but in the absence of a showcase that night I was very pleased to see him. He also explained to me his point of view of the ‘headbutting’ incident – and while I think he knows that nutting a heckler possibly wasn’t the bravest thing to do (however much of a prick the heckler was no doubt being) I could see how it happened and it really is a pity that the whole thing was reported on Chortle in such a public way. He’s one of the most genuine honest chaps in comedy, I hope nothing too bad comes of it, and I think he is showing courage by seeing out the run and not just going back to London. I think that’s what I’d do.

Perhaps the problem is that justice has been accidentally unjust. By which I mean, if there was any just injustice here, Dave Whitney’s arrest would have gone unreported and Sanderson Jones’ show would have been on the front page of Chortle so that perhaps more people would go and see it.

Anyway. For normal people, perhaps, bravery at a comedy show is nothing more than sitting on the front row where you might get picked on. Most nights when the Flashback show is not sold out, I have to try and hustle people down to the front. So was impressed – at least at first – by two teenage girls who seemed to be really keen to sit at the front.

It turned out they were just drunk. And stupid.

Now, in fairness it should be pointed out that not only is our timeslot (the last slot of the night) a prime horrible time for drunk people, it is also very hot and humid in the room, because it is a cave with no air conditioning or ventilation and it has been full of audiences and performers under hot stage lights for twelve hours straight. Unspecified liquids dribble down the walls regardless of whether or not it has rained outside, so I suspect the dripping is mostly condensation formed from the sweat of hundreds of audience members and performers. We are also, of course, following Doctor Brown, who (because he is lovely) no longer overruns very much, but whose show does still involve quite a wide distribution of foodstuffs around the room. There is a growing pool of damp congealed branflakes in one corner that has not been cleaned throughout the entire run, and is now probably on its way to becoming a protected habitat for all the festering species that have evolved in it.

Basically, the place is a hot, damp, stinking tunnel.

It takes real courage to stay there and stay focussed on the show; Rachel gets a good laugh early on by apologising for the fact that it’s like watching a comedy show in a fully functioning anus, and after that then most people seem to manage it. But it turned out those teenage girls didn’t have that courage. They didn’t even laugh at the anus joke. They just complained. Loudly and obtrusively. Until eventually, having completely disrupted the show, they left.

Even after that, it still felt like a weak performance. There hasn’t been much rehearsing in the last few days and there isn’t the sharpness that was there last week.

Still, there isn’t long to go now…and as with all tests of bravery, it’s really just a question of keeping going until it’s done.

Flashback: 4/10, but it can’t be a losing day when I saw those other shows…

DRAW

day 12: capital vs. magic

Apart from more visits from London, Tuesday was the worst day yet. I spent most of the day picking up the visitors (Nan and Jennifer) from the train station; but then the showcase was crap. I sucked – the crowd was small and I just didn’t have any energy, so none of my jokes hit and after a while I just felt like I was boring the audience. Jay Foreman had to cancel, because the constant gigging has wrecked his fingers (Linus Lee made a very good replacement but he wasn’t Jay). And Nick Sun wasn’t up to his usual brilliant form either. I left feeling disappointed.

Then the Flashback show was wrecked by a whole bunch of things that weren’t our fault: Dr. Brown overran again, though it seems that it’s not entirely his fault because the Big Value showcase that runs before him keeps overrunning too. By the time we got into the room and started the show, we were half an hour late. That really makes a difference to audiences after midnight, because people have to leave to get back to babysitters etc. Those who stay, and have had to wait in the bar, are usually either so tired or drunk by then that it wrecks the show.

Then we had the problem that half of the Just The Tonic venue staff – flyerers, bar staff, etc. – were in the bar right outside the room, getting drunk and making a huge amount of noise. To add insult to injury – literally – one of the venue staff was outside making sarcastic comments about the show (despite having never seen it) to people coming in.

I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of the venue staff, either. They don’t seem to understand how performance art venues work, what they do or what their value is. They are mostly kids on an insulting amount of money, whose training seems to consist of being given an A4 sheet of paper telling them not much more than that they need to take tickets, collect glasses, and show people in and out of the room.

That’s not it. They need to be made to understand that performers have paid thousands of pounds to the venue to put on the show, but the reason they’ve paid those thousands is to create magic because they believe in it. But what the venues care only for their profits, so they don’t bother to tell their minimum-wage staff that it’s a magic that only works if other people believe in it too.

If the audience go into a show believing that they will have a good time, most of the time they will. If they go into a room half an hour late, having been told by a drunk young man outside that they’ve wasted their money, then they probably won’t enjoy it so much. And the performers are screwed, not just financially but in terms of their credibility as artists and as the people they are trying to create themselves as.

Capitalism doesn’t always fuck art. But in Edinburgh, it frequently does.

And the worst thing is that, as always, the victims are turned against each other. I was so angry that I gave a bollocking to a member of the venue staff who had actually done her job quite well that night, just because she was there.

It’s not fair on anyone.

LOSE.

day 6: what’s real and what’s not

Yesterday was my first night off from running the showcase, so I went to see two shows: Holly Burn’s show ‘Living and Dying’ and Emo Philips.

Emo Philips is a legend, of course; but apart from his unique way of speaking into a microphone, there is very little that is especially original or creative about his act. He’s an absolute master of delivering one-liners, of course; but most people know a guy in the pub who can do that too.

But nobody knows anybody else that is quite like Holly Burn. The absolute worst that anyone could say of her show is that she is totally unique. If they were being more generous, they might also say she is some kind of maverick genius, because that’s what I suspect she is.

When I was recommending her show to people afterwards, they asked what it’s about. And I had to say at first that I have no idea. Then I thought for a moment, and said it’s about blurring the lines between imagination and reality.

Credo quia absurdum est – I believe it because it is absurd,’ says the sign above the stage; and that pretty much sums up the thing. If there is a theme in the show, it’s a theme of playing with what is believable and what isn’t. In one throwaway moment with an audience member, she says, “I don’t really know what’s real and what’s not, to be honest with you.” And you get the terrifying but exhilarating impression that maybe she actually doesn’t.

There’s a suggestion for a moment that she might introduce Death into the show as a character; but that wouldn’t do for this show; Death is too certain and not imaginative enough. Instead (and I don’t want to give too much of this away) she introduces Custard Flanagan, a character whose role is ‘to introduce an element of uncertainty into the proceedings’. I won’t say what Custard Flanagan actually does – and I have a hunch that it’s the kind of risky idea that must go badly wrong occasionally. But yesterday it was genuinely brilliant because Holly is Custard, the whole show is Custard Flanagan, and you leave with a vague sense that what you saw might not have actually happened at all…

Holly’s only trouble, perhaps, is that she is so much more imaginative than her audience. There are times when people clearly don’t get it, and I can see why she might have trouble getting gigs at stand-up clubs; she’s much too creative for stand-up. But over an hour she comes across as, well, probably quite mad; possibly a genius; and certainly worth going to see.

The Flashback show, in comparison, is one that most people ought to be able to engage with. Or at least, most people who know the films of the 1980s ought to be able to, anyway. We’ve been trying to explain away some of the bad performances by saying it’s not a mainstream show and that a lot of people don’t ‘get it’, and there’s an extent to which this is true. But it can’t be used as an excuse. I think if a joke is genuinely funny and well-delivered then the majority of people will receive it well. Last night’s little audience got the joke, I think – and despite everything going against us in terms of the lateness of the show, the darkness and weirdness of the venue, and the stinkiness of performing in a non-ventilated cave right after Dr. Brown’s show, we put on a really good show last night, and the little audience went for it.

When things go like this, Edinburgh is a lot of fun…even if it’s not quite real.

Showcase: (night off)

Flashback: Best yet. Audience small but generous, and a solid performance.

how it is

I came to see it for the second time today: How It Is by Miroslaw Balka at the Tate Modern. If you haven’t seen it, you haven’t lived. Or at least, you’ve lived but you haven’t had the chance to really understand it.

It’s – and I’m going to try explain what it is in a way that hopefully won’t put you off seeing it, and with as little hyperbole as possible – the single most interesting work of art, literature and demonstrative political philosophy I have seen in a long time.

Except ‘seen’ isn’t quite the right word. I mean, you see it from the outside (it’s a terrifyingly huge steel box that basically fills one end of the Turbine Hall); but when you go into it, it is complete blackness. You can’t see anything. You stumble around, not quite knowing what you’re doing, trying to work out if you’re about to walk into something or someone. Eventually you reach the back wall and you turn around, and you can see the light and the windows at the other end where you came in, and the silhouettes of people who are a little further back than you, themselves stumbling cautiously around trying to find their way.

Your eyes become accustomed to the dark and you can watch them: couples clinging to each other; children either panicking or enjoying the chaos; young men trying to prove their bravery by marching off away from their friends (only to slow right down and hold their hands out disorientatedly as soon as they are away from the pack); french girls reaching the back wall, shrugging nonchalently and saying, ‘ah, c’est le mur…’ as if it really means something…

Every person’s experience is different, everyone interprets that experience differently, the darkness is liberating and the freedom is oppressive, and you never quite know what’s going on until it’s pretty much time to leave. It is how it is.

But the amazing thing is that it reveals how incredibly blinkered many of us are to the obvious difficulties of sharing a space we don’t understand with others we struggle to acknowledge. At one point, as I sat in the corner, a woman tripped over me.

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I didn’t see you there.”

Well, duh.

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