Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Mushroom Crowd

I think I may have finally reached the point at which I lose contact with the sane world today.  Certainly today appears to be incontrovertible proof that I do not share the views of many of my fellow humans on this little, jumped-up island. Why do I feel so detached from everyone else?  It's because I'm an anti-nuclear pacifist.

Jeremy Corbyn has admitted, plainly and honestly, that if he were Prime Minister he would not use nuclear weapons.  Now I'm far from think that he's the saviour of us all come to solve all the problems on broken Britain with a few loaves and fishes, but I think having a PM who has nothing but a healthy disregard for one of the most repulsive human inventions of all time is a good thing.  But it appears that members of the political class, his own party, the military establishment and a majority of the citizenry of the country disagree due to fear and a hard-on for big things that go boom boom.  I imagine if they had their way every nuclear war-head would be painted to look like Basil Brush.

Those who say that he is naive, failing to play the game of international brinkmanship and deterrence properly and accuse people like him and me of being irresponsible could not sound more bananas to my ears.  There are nine nations who have nuclear weapons.  Nine.  Us, the States, China, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Russia.  I'm sure one or two others are perhaps working on them, but a great deal of countries - both developed and developing - appear to be getting on just fine without trying to create the ultimate death weapon.  Whether these are countries at the top of the Standard of Living league table in Scandinavia or corrupt dictatorships, they appear to share one thing in common: they realise that it's impossible to cultivate the education of your nation's youth / skim off a few extra pounds of gold bullion for your own personal piggy bank, if there's the constant threat of your country becoming a radioactive hole in the ground.

Let's look at the runners and riders of who might use weapons:

USA: Already done it. Let's never forget this.  It's absolutely no secret that the World's (Self-Appointed) Policeman is very much of the Dirty Harry, rather than Dixon of Dock Green variety.  The bombs dropped in Japan were as much about political dick-swinging in anticipation of the Cold War as they were about quickly ending a war they were always going to win.  Not that the US would ever fire nukes at us (and anyway, if they did they'd probably end up hitting Rekjavik as collateral damage) but we can't escape the fact that we live in a world where our 'side' are the only ones to have ever actually dropped an actual nuclear bomb.  Twice.

China: China is already the most economically powerful entity on Earth.  This is going to grow and grow and I can't imagine they would particularly want to blow-up potential markets for goods.  The only place they could realistically attack with a nuke is Japan and, frankly, if they haven't learnt their lesson from fifty years of Godzilla films, they'll get what's coming to them.  Plus, Prime Minister Pig-Fucker telling them "no seriously chaps, my finger is hovering right over the button" is hardly going to deter them.

France: There is a small chance the French might detonate a bomb to express their feelings about the futility of existence and human endeavour and because Luc Besson still hasn't won an Oscar, but they're not going to do it anywhere near us.

Israel: Even with Jeremy "loves a Muzzie" Corbyn in charge, I can't imagine Israel would ever nuke Western Europe.  Of course, their eyes are on defending their borders from a variety of Gulf States.  But if they bombed Iran or another similar country the whole area would just descend into horrifically violent mayhem.  I don't think some Great British Plutonium would help.

India/Pakistan: They literally could not give a shit about anyone else, this is just one might arm wrestle on the Kashmiri border.  Which is ironic, because if there's one country that these two might like to club together to punish for their horrendous Victorian imperialism, it's us.

North Korea: The perennial school nutter who's brought an air gun to school. If Kim-Jon Un decided to fire his Mecano rocket into space it would be like watching a live action re-creation of a Road Runner cartoon.  It's a surprise that when the UN Inspectors had a look around his nuclear facility it wasn't full of boxes marked ACME.  In the small likelihood that the launch is successful China would crush the state like a bug and release press releases along the lines of "North Korea?? Never heard of the place."

Which leaves us with...Russia: Now, even without the addition of various pieces of Western spin, the Russians are currently a little bit terrifying with a leader who is the answer to the question: "What would happen if you gave an under-sexed nightclub bouncer all of the money and guns?"  And there is no doubt they are being aggressive, but I've heard interviews with British military leaders claiming that Ukraine's decision to give up nuclear weapons was a key reason for the invasion by the Russians, ignoring the fact that even if that were true in that particular situation, Ukraine is a damn sight more convenient for the Russians to invade than Dover is.  Similarly, the top, shiny brass, suggested that now that Corbyn has said that he won't use nuclear weapons, the Russian are free to blackmail us, now they know destruction would not be mutually assured.  What he really meant is "now that one of our politicians has admitted that he wouldn't be quite as big a bastard as you'd like to be you now have free reign to act as you like."  Maybe the world is that nasty and dirty, but I admire Corbyn's hope.  Does this reaction that we can never see a pacifist leader in Number 10?  Must we always have some form of conflict at the heart of our relationship with the world?

But the reality is that Russia is simply not going to get involved in any sort of nuclear war with us.  Is it the most likely nation near by to fire nukes?  Of course. If they did should we respond?  Fuck no, they'll bomb us out of existence.  In the unlikely set of circumstances that they went full Strangelove we don't need our own nuclear deterrent, because the cowboys over the pond have got more than we could ever wish for and should have our backs in perpetuity.

And here's the key bit, even if they didn't, we still should get rid of the weapons, because of the message it would send internationally and domestically. I've just heard some pretty patronising and repulsive military figure on the radio witheringly describe Jeremy Corbyn and his "henchmen" (only Tom Watson in the Shadow Cabinet could be described as "hench" and even then he could probably be distracted from henching with a cookie and the latest copy of Mojo) as not having a clue about the realities of global politics.  I'd suggest he doesn't have a clue about how a country could or should be run.  Yes the world is dangerous - terrorists, drug runners, rogue states and the like - but by golly it's safer than it's been, possibly in he history of the world. There is a small chance that you could be unlucky enough to be born in a warzone or are part of an indiscriminate attack

I don't feel safer for having nuclear weapons.  I feel angrier.  Angrier that our tax is being wasted on something that has the same chance of being used as me having the lottery numbers for the next 6 draws tattooed on one of the Loch Ness Monster's flippers.  Angry that that money could be put towards our nation's education, health, the reforming of prisoners, the building of houses and buttressing of the arts.  Angry that somehow the current narrative on the radio and TV is of such unforgiving belligerence that the man saying "how's about we put the guns down and learn to work together?" is being painted as the idiot and the charlatan.  Angry that the protocol of being Prime Minister is that on achieving office you are given a sheet of paper to sign that in effect says "give us the ok PM, we can use the nukes and no more will be said about it." Angry that there appears to be certain aspects of our political culture that are ossified and broken and will not change and the public are happy for that to remain the same way.  Angry that will kill us won't be a thundering cloud of nuclear damnation, a maelstrom firestorm brought about by a lack of diplomacy and understanding.  Angry that it'll be our own cowardice and failure to understand each other.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Looking Back in Stavanger

Ah Norway! Home of ruddy-cheeked outdoor pursuits enthusiasts, responsibly curated oil reserves, A-ha, the Nobel Prize and for 48 hours or so last week: me. I gigged in Norway last year – in Oslo – and that was fun, but I don't feel like I got a real flavour the Nordic experience there, other than the seizure-inducingly price of every single item. Nothing will make you savour a Mars bar more than paying £2.30 for it. I hate to rise to a racial stereotype, but I did my absolute best to suck every last sugar crystal of value out of it. Oslo seems a good place, but I think it also fell foul of the homogeneity of European capital city centres, so I was really excited to head off into the unknown of Stavanger. Admittedly, part of this was because I had imagined Stavanger to be about 500 kilometres further north on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Turns out I wasn't headed for the luminescent skies of far north, but more of a Lego version of Aberdeen.

Stavanger is the heartland of Norways oil industry. Until the 1960s it was a small, humble coastal town – and it still has many of these traits – but since the discovery of gloopy magic melted fossils off the coast it has exploded with spondoolicks. I flew there via Gatwick and knew the world was going to treat me to a fun couple of days away when the airport security guard dispensed with th usual glassy-eyed stair and rudimentary fumblings to instead talk to me about Kermit the Frog's new girlfriend as if it were the hottest piece of sleb gossip going. We both agreed it wouldn't last and was almost certainly down to a mid-life crisis on Kermit's part.

My favourite thing about going to other north-west European countries is that they have a sort of Twilight Zone feel about them: there are so many recognisable images, places, words and customs, but Norway is what England would be like in an alternate reality where the landscape really makes an effort and people are actually sincere. There is a wholesomeness and desire to live life in the best possible way – because that's obviously how one should live – that is similar to Germany. The in-flight entertainment – which was slightly obscured by a man in a bobble-hat who I'm 98% convinced the Norwegian tourist board paid to sit in front of me – was a medley of Tom and Jerrry cartoons. Coming into land in Stavanger is brilliant – Norway is a country that had thousands of tiny archipelagos going out to sea, so you get a tasting menu of Nordic geography – mouthfuls of forest and little sips of lake and river. Once I hit the airport it was clear that I was in a superior country. Small clues like airport seating being focussed round a chess board, taxi drivers able to give you a full up date of the history and current affairs of the area and streets that are so eerily clean I was concerned that if I went outside with my hair too scruffy I'd end up being kidnapped by government stylists and thrown back out into the world neatly coiffured.

I was staying in the miniature third floor apartment of the promoter – Chi – was had vacated the premises to go to a wedding in America. This might be a sign of encroaching early-middle-age, but it was a masterclass in storage. She'd somehow managed to fit enough items for a fully-fledged townhouse into space that sometimes resembled a showhome based on the dimensions of John Cusack's office on floor 7 ½ in Being John Malkovich. Like almost everything in Stavanger, the flat was pristine, warm and welcoming.

So what about the gigs? Is it easy to make a bunch of cold-hearted, ergonomically-focussed, uber-polite Scandies laugh? Well...sort off. I love doing gigs abroad – partially because there isn't the depth of stand-up culture there, so I always look like a better comic than I actually am and because you're pretty certain not to have much hassle from the audience, so you're free to play. Gig number one was at Checkpoint Charlie. Amongst the sleek lines and fresh, community-focused architecture, it was no surprise that the comedy was behind the dirtiest, dingiest, most grafitti-covered door. It's where we belong. The show was lovely, but quite an off experience from the stage, as the audience were both the hottest and coldest I'd played to in a while. Without wanting to be Bertie Big Bollocks, they gave me more applause breaks than I've had for a long time – it was ace, but I'm putting it down to cultural differences, rather than me suddenly transmogrifying into Britain's greatest comic mind, not least because there were a couple times when they stared at me as though I'd just laid an ostrich egg. It made for quite a strange gigging experience as I oscillated between feeling like I was a belting comic and was speaking total nonsense.

Wednesday night's gig was nothing compared to the odd location of the following night. I have, in my time as a comic, gigged in such varied locations as a shed in a field in Suffolk, Hackney wetlands centre, above an amateur professional wrestling night and on a floating restaurant, but Stavanger Chamber of Commerce has to be right up there in the bizarre stakes. It was one of the more austere buildings in the city and when I entered it gave of an air of serious business, not least because of the black and white photos of chairmen and women of old who all had the same look captured on their faces, which said “business is paramount, none of your whimsical jesting here little man!” Anyone who has done private gigs in England for business people would understand my trepidation at playing to a room full of people who had just eaten dinner, were there to network and probably had little interest in the musings of a troll with too close an access to curling tongs. However they and I were wrong. Like everyone else I met in Norway this assemblage of grown-ups with proper jobs were warm, playful and friendly and insisted in filling me up with free finger food after I'd talked daftness at them for twenty minutes.

Even better, I ended up having a cracking chat with one of them who was on a rare night out away from her husband and kids who insisted on taking me out to a local bar. Now, there are many misconceptions about being a stand-up or an actor and one of them that it is a never-ending rock and roll lifestyle of falling in and out of bars with groupies and hangers-on. That's clearly not true of me for a couple of reasons: no one has ever wanted to hang on to me and I can barely hang on to reality after the fourth pint. However sometimes people do want to take you out and show you their town, so I was delighted to be taken to a non-descript bar, up a non-descript staircase (and thankfully not into a non-descript kill room) to find a warm, homely 'brown bar' selling comforting Guinness and playing some Super Furries and ska over the PA. We spent the evening righting wrongs of the world, chatting about Dante's Inferno, the disobedience of children and futility of ideal parenting. There's something especially lovely about travelling to a totally different country and still being able to enjoy a good few hours of chat over some booze. It's the most civilised of doings.

I awoke a little fuzzy the next morning, far too late to meet my grand plan of climbing a small Norwegian hillock to get a fine panorama of Stavanger. Instead I was driven to the airport and a few hours later landed back in messy, busy, smelly, infuriatingly excellent old London, after what felt like another world of cleanliness, politeness and outrageously expensive everything. Frankly, if I could spend Tuesday-Thursday gigging in a friendly European city I think I would, but this week it's been back to under-populated back rooms of London pubs and the ever-so-slightly dispiriting new material circuit, where the nearest you'll get to an applause break is going down in flames in a way that amuses the other comics. Still, I look forward to heading back to the Nordic paradise where it seems that even stand-up comedians get carried along in the higher standard of living for everyone.

Monday, 7 September 2015

What Did the Romans Ever Do For Us?

Let me take you through the average Saturday of a gigging comedian:

1. Leave the comfort, contentment and warmth of a happy Saturday afternoon with friends and loved ones to head out into the cold, unforgiving world of motorway travel.
2. Arrive at the venue after a drive which included at least one stop at a dead-eyed service station and a disappointing pasty.
3. Survey the crowd: you pray for couples, a warm buzz of expectation and good-hearted laughter.  Eyes are calibrated to notice warning signs of groups of women in tiaras and anyone dressed as a giant phallus.
4. Depending on the make-up of the room, your level of self-confidence and the phases of the moon you either storm it, wade through the treacle of disinterest, fight a bearpit or just do your job an make a room full of other humans happy for 20 minutes.
5. You drive home full of pride/self-hatred/hunger/bafflement at humanity, hunkering after your bed at 1:30 am.

Now let me take you through my ridiculous Saturday night gigging:

Myself, Paul McGarrity and The Story Beast (aka John Henry Falle), along with my business partner Swanny hit the road at the offensively early time of 9:30am, with a far-off destination in our sights: Chester's Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall.  Swanny and I have been plotting away to stage comedy gigs at some of the most famous heritage venues in the country and we finally got our chance to start - quite appropriately - somewhere near the beginning of British history.  After hours of travel - sadly not along Watling Street - we finally arrived at Chollerford, near Hexham, in Northumberland, to be greeted by what later became known as the Giant Igloo of Education and the White Inflatable Nipple of History.  Our pop-up venue had been erected (well, blown up) right next to the archaeological dig of one of the largest forts on the wall - a place where, approximately 2000 years ago men in plumed helmets would corral horses against the combined barbarian masses of the Picts and Scots facing them. In many ways, the experience of Roman soldiers on the wall was not far off your average weekend comedy club.

The show was a wonder: we had an audience full of good cheer led by an American Marcus Aurelius, ably assisted by a genuine Roman archaeologist in the audience, who was on hand to regularly correct me on the bullshit facts which I regularly spouted.  It was exactly the audience we'd hoped for - warm, daft and encouraging.  I like a good, challenging bear pit as much as the next comic, but an audience in which at least three people are enjoying hot chocolate with marshmallows whilst you joke about the finer points of sculptures commemorating the death cult of Emperor Hadrian's gay lover are pretty special.

All of the acts had an absolute smasher - Paul doing his very best to remain alpha archaeologist, The Story Beast causing muche rejoycyng in the halle and Gordon Southern taking us home with 10,000 years of human history in 20 minutes.  Three weeks and the Edinburgh Festival had really taken it our of The Story Beast and his four humours were clearly so unaligned that he was coughing and spluttering after getting off stage.  I ran to the Heritage shop to see if they had any lozenges or warm honeyed drinks.  "Terribly sorry, but no" was the reply of the man behind the till.  Then after a pause "we've got some mead though..."  And so we fixed an 8,000 year old yarnspinner's dodgy chest with the most apposite elixir around.

Delighted with our success we packed up, grabbed some more mead from the shop and headed down a genuine Roman road (with exciting hidden dips for extra irresponsible driving points) to our accommodation at Birdoswald, another fort nearby.  The route was preparing for the upcoming Tour of Britain, so as we neared our destination, lampposts reared up out of the darkness with full-size knitted bicyclists hanging off them, like knitted mannequin wraiths come for our souls.  Safe to say we genuinely screamed in fearful union a few times.

On arriving at our place for the night, we weren't really sure what to expect - a bunk bed and breakfast was about all we'd been told.  It turned out that, not only were we sharing with other Heritage staff who had helped organise the Hadrian's Wall Live weekend, but also an entire troop of Italian historical recreationists - Legionnaires and barbarians alike, wondering the corridors in tunics, bedraggled and bedreadlocked, marked with whorls of woad and wielding the odd (hopefully blunted) Gladius Hispaniensis.  This was where the night got really interesting.

It wasn't long before the mead (and the Stella and the red wine) began to flow and we befriended five of the Italians.  Not to be too judgemental towards our own noble British history recreationists, but there was not a whiff of the cardigan-wearing nerd about these men.  They were tanned, muscled, good-looking representative of the Roman nation and had a classic Mediterranean unbridled passion for what they did.  We traded drinks and handshakes and embraces and insults (Swanny: "I'm from Wales." "where?" "The chaps in red who beat you at rugby all the time.") as we did our best to communicate our passion for history in broken Anglo-Italian.

When bedtime was declared instead of heading to our bunks we followed the crocodile of soldiers out to their encampment on the wall.  Sadly we'd missed the huge firelit party of the night before, but we still spent a good two hours under a glittering canopy of stars sharing more intoxicants and a potent Italian cigar with Fabbio, the clear leader of this troop.  It was tremendous to chat to him about how much it clearly meant to him to be here, at the limits of the Roman Empire, on the edge of civilisation ("no offence to Scozia, I like it now.")  The passage of time is a strange thing - I'd spent the evening telling an audience about Hadrian's brutality (he persuaded his 90 year old brother-in-law to commit suicide in order to ensure the succession he desired) as well as the general calculated, bloodthirsty world of Rome.  Names such as Nero and Caligula and Brutus throw up images in the mind's eye and they are not of civilisation, but the worst of humanity's machinations.  But then the Roman's were not a reflective people - they were conquerors and civilised by assimilation.  They were not philosophers but people enjoyed bread and circuses, wine, women and song.  I found it odd, but touching how much this empire meant to Fabbio.  It  was a grand achievement, but sealed with blood.  The long passage of time allows that perspective and pride I suppose, although I don't think 1,000 years down the line any recreationists of the British Empire are likely to nip over to India to re-stage the Amritsar Massacre.  But somehow the mighty and the repellent actions of the Empire just become stories, myths and tales.  No one living in Persia, Asturia or Brittanica now holds anything against the Romans. They're just tremendous tales and marvellous drinking buddies.



Thursday, 3 September 2015

Wake Up and Smell the Crisis

Like many other people this week, I've been trying to make sense of the deeply harrowing images that have appeared on social media and (finally) mainstream media this week.  I am ashamed of the fact that it's only when the reporting of catastrophe built upon catastrophe have reached some sort of event horizon that I've managed to try and do something about it and feel that it's my responsibility.  I like to think of myself as warm-hearted and charitable, but equally I know that there had always been and always will be so much more I could do to help the vulnerable and weak of the world.  So much of the world has been broken that I've managed to hide in my fortified North London bubble and scream "a plague on both your houses" at the Middle East and ISIS and tinpot dictators.  I've become fatalistic about climate change ("I'll be dead by the time it really kicks in...good luck grandkids!") and weary about the never-ending cycle of violence and hatred and bloodshed.  It's far away, thank goodness we're not repeating fascistic mistakes of the 20th century or the imperial ones of the 19th.  Life is good here and better for many millions around the world so let's just accept that shit things happen everyday and hopefully we can get on with our lives and they'll stop or the media will move on or we'll be let off the emotional hook somehow.  Those are the blinkers I've been wearing.

But the horror and human pain of the refugee crisis is too much.  It's easy to get crisis fatigue when you read about another Iraqi suicide bomb or ISIS raid.  35 dead in Basra, 49 dead in Tikrit, 12 dead in Bagdhad.  Just numbers.  Those things probably will never ravage the UK and so we can disassociate ourselves from them.  But this refugee crisis has happened here.  I'm the grandchild of refugees for fucks sake.  Not migrants (and we should welcome them too) but people running for their lives from murder and rape and torture.  As one of my Facebook friends wrote yesterday - if someone came to your door screaming that they'd been attacked, their family beaten and they were on the run from a madman, you'd shelter them and help them out of pure, raw human empathy.  You wouldn't close the door in their face, order three new Chubb locks and hide in the basement eating caviar.  Except that's what the British government think we should do.

There seems to be a real feeling in the government and some parts of the nation that since we defeated the Nazis that gives us a free pass on other moral issues and dilemmas.  We need to wake up that 75 years have past and the world is different. We need to accept, in a way that we have not yet, that before World War 2 Britain was one of the biggest, most hated bastards in the world - ask India, ask Zimbabwe, ask anywhere we owned and stole from and pillaged.  It was only the fact that the Nazis were even bigger bastards than us that saved us.  We haven't come to terms with the world turning in the way that, say, the Germans have.  Who could imagine the remarkable response of that nation to this humanitarian crisis when looking at their history in the past 100 years?

So whilst our government manages to moves its ability to spurn the weak, vulnerable, disabled and desperate from the domestic to the international sphere, it's left to us, the people, do to something about it.  Really we should be housing refugees.  I don't care if we have food banks and income inequality and a housing crisis and a creaking NHS.  This is still a country with a far higher standard of living that at least 80% of the planet.  We could take 10,000, minimum, without a fuss.  For once I'm delighted to be a bit inspired by something Yvette Cooper has said - if 100 towns took just 10 families that's 4000 people right there.  That's easy, so easy.  These poor fuckers are desperate and broken and it feels like we've reached a real tipping point.  God I hope we have.  I really hope this isn't just another flavour of the month tragedy that we get compassion fatigue with.  I doubt it actually, it's just too big.

A good friend once pointed out that even people who consider themselves to be altruistic have a limit of how much money, time or empathy they can give.  All of us could, in theory, give so much more. We could sacrifice all but our bare essentials of clothing, food, shelter, money and time to help those whose lives are infinitely more harrowing and difficult than ours. But we don't.  Partially through apathy and partially because I think that, even in the face of over-whelming suffering worldwide we owe it to ourselves to strive for a good standard of living and an upper limit on what we can give.  But we're nowhere near that right now.  We can give so much more.  So in the face of this horror there are some people doing some excellent things to help out and I urge you to fund them and donate to them and try and do something, just a little thing for 5-10 minutes a day to help.  Sign a petition to keep this in the political discourse, write to your MP, donate money or clothing or camping equipment.  These people aren't going to go away.  There is a very real possibility that if we don't try and absorb these refugees into our societies in a humane way then they could end up in disassociated refugee camps dotted around Europe, little pockets of stateless despair that so many governments will try and sweep under the ermine rug of fortress Europe.  Hungary is already throwing hundreds on trains to camps, rather than let them try and find stable homes to re-start their lives. The news on the Twitter feed from Paul Mates of ITV News is chilling me to the bone and the echoes of people going on trains to an undetermined destination is terrifying.  I appreciate it's hard for Hungarian authorities (who aren't exactly pussy cats mind you) to be on Europe's frontline of this crisis, but I just which that some European leaders, other than Mistress Merkel would show more compassion, leadership and co-ordination.

I've always been suspicious of the fact that I've grown-up in relatively peaceful times.  Over 75 years without a major land war in Europe is pretty remarkable when you look at our history over the centuries.  It could just be that the echoes and aftershocks of war and violence in the Middle East could produce something equally as destabilising as war - a huge flood of broken humanity needing our support and kinship.  Let's hope we can somehow step up to the plate.

If you want to feel a little bit less like a useless lump of Western privilege, I heartily recommend going to this Amazon wishlist and donating some of the goods on it for Calais based migrants:  It's a drop in the ocean, but somewhere out there will be another human being who could really do with your support right now.