Thursday, August 28, 2008

Comic Cuts

Joan Rivers on BBC2's Culture Show was explaining that comedians, unlike singers, always have to do new material.
Joan Rivers? A woman who has been doing the same jokes for 30 years.

"My husband committed suicide. It was my fault."
Altogether Now: Yes, Joan. You took the bag off your head.

Maybe the poor man killed himself because he couldn't bear to hear the same joke yet again.
As for Joan, is she unaware that she's doing the same stuff as though on an audio loop? Has she got Altzheimer's?


After last night's footie, I watched a bit of Alan Carr's Tooth Fairy show on C4. A few days before, I'd seen him on a repeat of Live at the Apollo on a digital channel. Most of the material was identical.
Come to think of it, he did a lot of the same jokes on the Royal Variety Performance.
I know I've moaned about this before but if these people can repeat themselves for vast sums of money than I can do it for free.


The ads for Russell Howard's tour describe him as "one of the most sought-after acts in British stand-up."
Presumably, like his co-panellists on Mock the Week (on which he's the weakest link) he's sought after by people who want to punch his smug face.

This publicity blurb reminded me of the ancient music hall joke: "The audience were with me all the way. But I managed to shake them off at the station."

Meanwhile, in a sign of changing times, I see that the tour of The Vagina Monologues is playing the Assembly Halls in Tunbridge Wells. Another stereotype sadly bites the dust.
They're probably so un-disgusted now in Tunbridge Wells that they could re-name the show The Cunt Colloquies and nobody would reach for the Basildon Bond and the green ink.


On his Radio 4 show last night, Mark Watson, another over-rated comedian, appeared to think that YouGov is a Government-run polling organisation.
It is not.
Not so long ago I heard another comedian on Radio 4 say 'wouldn't it be awful if Gordon Brown's strange jaw movements that we all make fun of were actually a disability?'
They are. It's the result of an accident.
Shouldn't comedians be subject to some kind of editorial fact-checking?
To paraphrase the old journalistic motto: jokes are free but facts are sacred.

As for Mark Watson, listening to his burblings is like being trapped on a train with a loquacious bore. Well, not quite because you can turn him off, which I usually do.


Fans of Summer Heights High can see Chris Lilley's previous series this evening. In Australia it was called We Can be Heroes but here and in the rest of world it's called The Nominees.
It starts at 10.30 pm on FX - a channel that few have ever watched and many have never heard of.
I wonder if this means the BBC cannot now buy it. I'm sure they'd like to after the success of Summer Heights High.
FX is 126 on Sky and 132 on Virgin.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Lost Midweek

Don't you hate it when you visit your GP about some minor symptoms on your way to the supermarket and within 20 minutes you're in hospital wired up to those beeping machines so familiar to us from TV programmes?
This was what happened to me this week.

The NHS now has a policy of reacting to any symptoms that might indicate a heart problem as an imminent heart attack. As someone who has a general 'just in case' approach to life, I find this quite admirable although it's a little alarming if you are on the receiving end of the policy.

My father sat with me in the A & E cubicle. Like many elderly people he watches 'Countdown' in the afternoons. I glanced at the clock and said to him "You're missing Countdown."
"Not necessarily", he replied. "This might be Countdown for you."
I thought the dour Scandinavian male nurse looked disapproving at this black humour whilst I had a delayed reaction to this joke and started laughing during my chest X-Ray which probably skewed the results.

Whilst the man who I at first thought was a porter but who I now profoundly hope was a nurse was injecting me in the stomach, I was thinking: "I can probably get two or three blog posts out of this...... assuming I don't snuff it. And if the latter happens, then my readers will be spared all those 'just a little prick' jokes."
Well, dear readers, you won't be spared because I was, for now anyway.
And yesterday afternoon brought the joy of a blond male nurse standing by my bed with my discharge in his hand.
(If you can identify which Peter Nichols play that joke comes from, I'll inscribe your name in the Middle England Hall of Fame).

For now, the experience is too raw to write much about and I'm rather woozy from lack of sleep and food, the two essentials of life that hospitals aren't very good at providing.
But, apart from a few minor quibbles, the staff were wonderful and the hospital spotless.

They sent me home with just a packet of aspirin and the only negative information being that my cholestorel is a little higher than it should be. This actually worried me disproportionately because it raised the awful possibility that I might have to eat Flora or take the Gloria Hunniford Flora Challenge. I'd rather jog round the neighbourhood wearing pink Lycra emblazoned with a Smoking Kills slogan than do that.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Great Divide

A right-wing think-tank has said that people in northern cities should all move south. If this is "thinking outside the box" then those stupid twats should be put back in the box, the box be weighted down with cobbles and dropped into Liverpool's Albert Dock.

The Guardian's G2 has today responded with a feature on what's great about The North. Jon Ronson has a little piece about his first bus journey in Manchester. Buses and bus stops often feature in stories about northern humour and friendliness.
Ronson describes a girl on the bus playing a game in which she whacked her boyfriend with a newspaper every time she spotted a blue car.
When I lived in Gateshead, which has one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in Britain, children on the top deck of the bus would sometimes play a game of Spot The Jew. Two kids would sit on opposite sides of the bus and see who got the highest tally. I then started playing it silently to myself and pushed the score up by including every passing Volvo (all the Jews in Gateshead drove Volvos).

When I first moved to Tyneside, a girl who was a fellow refugee from the south told me that travelling to new areas by bus posed no problem. You asked the bus driver to tell you when you reached your stop. Not only would he actually do so but other passengers who had overheard your conversation with the driver would give you a running countdown: "Only three more stops to yours, pet."

I once had a more extraordinary experience. Travelling from Gateshead to Newcastle one evening, the driver stopped the bus just before we crossed the river. I heard him coming up the stairs and thought that the bus had broken down or that I had given him the wrong fare. But he told me that he had finished his shift and as I was the only passenger, was there anywhere else other than the bus station that he could drop me off? It took me a few moments to realise that he was putting his bus at my disposal as a private taxi service. "Within reason, like..." as he put it.
Tempting though it was to be delivered to the queue at Newcastle's largest gay nightclub by my own bus, as though enacting a scene from 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert', I declined his kind offer and settled for the bus station.

When I moved back south it took me a few weeks to adjust to a culture where talking to strangers at bus stops produced startled looks and people would edge away from me as though I were a drug-crazed, paedophile, illegal immigrant. Just an innocuous comment on the weather would have them hiding behind their Daily Mails.

I've just realised that some of this links to my comments on 'reciprocal altruism' in my recent post on Dawkins on Darwin.
Here's another example of almost crazy altruism.
I once took my broken Hoover to a small electrical repair shop in Gateshead. The owner told me it would cost £25 to repair. I was then living on benefits so I said I couldn't afford it. As I was leaving, he called me back and said he wouldn't charge me for the labour, only the cost of the part and would do it for a fiver.
I doubt that man is now running a multi-million pound business empire. But he's a much better man than most people who are. He's one of those bit-part players in my life who I'll always remember with gratitude and affection.

As is the Gateshead newsagent from whom I had ordered The Guardian. On the first day, the supplier hadn't delivered it. "It doesn't matter. I'll get one in town", I said. But nothing could dissuade him from getting in his car and driving several miles to the wholesaler to get me a Guardian.

That's probably enough northern anecdotes but allow me one more because it always makes me laugh. A very small boy was stuck up a tree in a park in Gateshead. His two sisters said they would go and get help. As they left, they said: "We won't be long. Stay there."
"What do youse mean: 'stay there'?", the boy shouted. "I'm not fucking going anywhere, am I?"
That's one of my favourite real-life comedy lines.

Because I abhor generalisations and stereotypes I must add the rider that the north has its share of miserable sods who wouldn't give you the time of day and in the small southern community where I now live I have some very friendly neighbours, although in some cases it took them ten years to progress beyond a nod of the head.

I also exempt London from my strictures on the south for like any metropolis it has an ethos of its own that is influenced by its sheer size. In the years that I lived there, I always liked the fact that you could sit on the tube painting funny faces on your penis and nobody would bat an eyelid. Not that I ever did that, I hasten to add.

But I think I once wrote here about my encounters with the Phantom Groper of the Northern Line.
As his hand gently moved from my inner thigh to my genitals, I carried on reading Russell Grant's horoscope in the Evening Standard, which curiously omitted to predict any surprising travel experiences.
This was perhaps an example of reciprocal altruism. He was getting his dangerous thrill and my usually boring journey home was spent trying to think of the word 'frotteurism' as though it were a crossword clue. The only thing that came up (literally) before Kings Cross was 'frottage' but that didn't have enough letters. Not that it mattered because I wasn't actually doing a crossword. More to the point, 'frottage' is a surrealist painting technique and whatever Fingers was doing down there it wasn't something you learn at art college.
It might also be considered altruistic that I didn't shout "Get your hands off my cock, you fucking pervert!" However, I must be honest and say that, having been born and bred a southerner, I didn't want to make a scene.
One hopes that Mr Textbook Frotteurism never pursued his hobby north of Watford. Try that kind of interaction with strangers on the Tyneside Metro and you'd be lucky to escape with your life.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Goin' Orf On One

On the subject of GM crops, Prince Charles has once again "gone off on one" to quote the phrase of his interviewer, Jeff Randall. (This raises the possibility of the regal phrase "One has gorn orf on one").

On the tape recording he did indeed sound very angry, ranting like his poor, mad ancestor George III.
It's a bit rich for Charles to be scaremongering about GM foods when his own family have conducted a lengthy, and some would say unsuccessful, experiment in breeding from a restricted gene pool.
This has unleashed on the world, among others, the terrifying chimera that is Princess Anne.

As to his charge that man is interfering with nature, it's worth pointing out that man has been doing that ever since the Neolithic revolution around 3,500 BC (that's around 5,500 Before Charles) when we began cultivating crops and breeding cattle.

Admittedly, the royal family have always had an atavastic attachment to the pre-neolithic hunter-gatherer phase of human history with their obsessive huntin', shootin' and fishin', albeit relieved from the survival imperative by virtue of vast inherited wealth and state benefits.
But even this is not without 'interference with nature' for do they not intensively breed game birds so they can blast them out of the sky?

This devotion to the mass slaughter of animals served the family well in the Second World War for, whilst publicly declaring that they were suffering the same privations as their people, they were able to live high on the hog on venison, grouse and rabbit which were exempt from food rationing.

Now I'm going off on one. Time for a coffee and a biscuit.
A biscuit, I should add, whose provenance has been carefully verified to ensure it has never been within spitting distance of the Duchy of Cornwall.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dawkins On Darwin

Richard Dawkins' three part series on The Genius of Charles Darwin (C4) has all the padding and attention-grabbing images that one expects now in TV documentaries. In last night's programme he posed with an almost naked cowboy on a street in New York to illustrate a passing reference to sexual attraction.
But this is still one of the best documentaries of the year.

Evolution is one of the simplest scientific theories, far more accessible to the layman than most of the mind-boggling discoveries of physics and cosmology of the past hundred years. Yet evolution is also one of the most misunderstood theories, or perhaps I should say 'discoveries'. One often feels that it is wilful misunderstanding, particularly on the part of religious fundamentalists.
As Dawkins patiently explained to an African bishop, evolution does not say we are descended from monkeys but that we have a common ancestor. "Same thing", people have said to me. But of course it is not. To say we are descended from monkeys is like saying your are a descendant of your cousin. You would think that with all the interest today in genealogy people would comprehend that.

Then there's the misinterpretation of "survival of the fittest" as meaning the healthiest and most physically fit, when it actually means those best adapted to their environment.
"Fit for purpose", in the current buzz-phrase.

It's strange that Dawkins, having seen the extent to which Darwin has been misunderstood, should have laid himself open to the same misunderstanding with his book title "The Selfish Gene". Many people, even including some who read the book, believe he was arguing for the inherent and undiluted selfishness of human nature when he actually believes the opposite. Dawkins has written that he now regrets coining that phrase.

Dawkins has been subjected to an extraordinary degree of misrepresentation. Even the wonderful Nancy Banks-Smith could not resist describing him as a fiery-eyed atheist when what I see is a twinkly-eyed, warm and modest man with a sense of humour and a love of people.
A common accusation is that he is as much a fundamentalist as the religious fundamentalists that he criticises. People who say this have either never read his books or are too stupid to understand them.
One piece of evidence is sufficient to refute this accusation. Chapter Four of The God Delusion has the title "Why there almost certainly is no God" [my emphasis]. When have you ever read a religious book with a chapter titled "Why there almost certainly is a God"?

Evolution is incompatible with the biblical version of creation. However it does not in itself disprove the existence of a god. It leaves open the possibility, however implausible, that God, instead of cutting to the chase and creating mankind as a complete and finished product, created a single cell and let evolution take its course over billions of years. For some reason many, if not most, Christians seem to find that idea not just implausible but deeply offensive.
The case for there almost certainly being no God rests on the total lack of any evidence and the fact that all the well-known arguments for his existence are either illogical or circular in nature.

The existence of a non-religiously based morality or altruism was one of the subjects of last night's programme and is one of the most interesting aspects of Dawkins' work. To do it justice requires a series of its own.
In the context of 'reciprocal altruism' I didn't feel that the point was strongly enough made that it is only, in relative terms, during the last few minutes of our existence as a species that most of us have ceased living in very small and intimate communities. Yet in large, anonymous urban communities we continue, in many small ways, to do things that not only have no direct benefit to ourselves but carry little likelihood of reciprocal benefit. We hold doors open for people. Quite often, someone lets me go ahead of them in the supermarket queue because I have only one item. These tiny acts of altruism make life tolerable.

On a broader scale, if morality were impossible without religion, one would expect that in today's predominantly secular society, the non-religious would be raping, murdering and pillaging to a degree that would cause the complete collapse of civil society. That this is not the case is something to be celebrated. It is also one of the most intriguing subjects to be explored by both scientists and moral philosophers.

Another contemporary example of reciprocal altruism is the internet. In all the focus on the evils of the internet, what it has revealed to us about the positive aspects of human nature is often overlooked. It may be awash with pornography, spammers, hackers and con-men but it is also awash with altruism.
There are millions of websites that people have set up for no other reason than to help others and without any financial reward.
On countless occasions I have solved a computer problem with the help of a website on which someone has chosen to share their knowledge and expertise. Some of these saintly people will even deal with emailed questions and come back with a solution.
Then there are the vast numbers of websites that provide mutual support and advice for people suffering from every conceivable physical and mental illness.
What is absent from all these phenomena is any controlling authority, any competitive ethos, any financial reward or any profit motive. It is the exact opposite of the market-based model that is extolled by most politicians of every political party. It is a functioning, spontaneous infrastructure not just of reciprocal altruism but of egalitarian socialism and, for perhaps the first time, demonstrates the viability of some of the principles of that most utopian of political philosophies, anarchism.
So it's little wonder that the other internet phenomenon of file-sharing should be seen as such a threat by music and media companies, challenging as it does the very basis of the free market economy. Nor that the Inland Revenue should have their beady eye on skill-swopping websites where people exchange labour without exchanging any real-world money.

But back to the Dawkins programmes. In the first episode, he spoke to an African prostitute who had developed an immunity to HIV. She attributed this good fortune to God's intervention. Several people have said that this must have greatly annoyed Dawkins. But how much more infuriating must it have been to the religious?
God had intervened to allow her to safely have sex with up to ten different men a day, effectively suspending his rule that the wages of sin are death.
We know that he works in mysterious ways. But wouldn't that be downright bonkers?

Friday, August 08, 2008

"Jump in tinsel tits and grab yourself a Yorkie"

Further proof that Evan Davis has been a breath of fresh air on the Today programme (Radio 4) came with his piece on today's programme in which he set out to see if hitch-hiking was still viable by attempting to hitch-hike to Bournemouth.
One can't imagine John Humphreys, Ed Stourton or Jim Naughtie undertaking such an assignment.

In the case of Jim Naughtie, a 10 mile queue of traffic would have built up while he was asking a driver the question........"most people would say that your presence on the southbound carriageway is evidence that you are heading in a southerly direction and, assuming that is indeed the case, and given the fact that all the evidence would point to the fact that you have spare passenger capacity in your vehicle, would it be unreasonable to suggest that you might be minded to offer me a lift to Bournemouth which, as you and most listeners will know is a popular resort on the south coast of England and which, of course, was written about so memorably by John Betjeman......I'm going to have to hurry you because we're almost out of time."

This was rather a spurious experiment by Evan because many people will have recognised him from his TV appearances. There will have been truckers eager to engage Evan in conversation:

"That post-endogenous classical growth theory. What's that all about then?"

"That Peter Jones on Dragons' Den. He's well up 'imself, innit. Smug prick."

"Have you really got nipple rings? The wife's just had her belly button done. Silly bitch."

It's not known whether Evan's boyfriend knew that he was spending yesterday standing by the roadside smiling hopefully at lorry drivers. But that tell-tale aroma of diesel and the pocketful of Yorkie bars might have been a clue.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Chinese Whispers

BBC News has had stories about the effusive welcome that the Chinese have been ordered to give to visitors to the Olympics. One of their reporters was subjected to several dozen welcomes just crossing the hotel lobby.
The Chinese have been given instructions on smiling. Apparently they must display between six and eight teeth when they smile and use chopsticks as a training aid to force their mouths into a smile.
(It's just as well I don't smile much. You wouldn't want to see my teeth, unless you were a dentist trying to raise the money for a villa in Portugal).

That degree of fabricated bonhomie would probably make me homicidal. It would also make me nostalgic for the routine surliness of Britain.
I often complain about the rudeness of many shop assistants, bar staff and others in this country and their refusal to reply to a greeting. But one appreciates those who do acknowledge one's existence all the more. As I've said before, the teenage shop staff hereabouts are far more likely to be friendly than the older ones. They tend to greet you in their own vernacular - "all right, Mate?" - but I've no objection to that. It's preferable to both silence and the standardised, corporate training programme garbage.

We use the term 'fashion police' jokingly here. But Chinese citizens have been told they mustn't wear more than three different colours while the Games are on.
And they mustn't pop next door to borrow some noodles whilst wearing their pyjamas.
Unbelievable isn't it?
But hang on. My local library now has a sign saying you cannot enter if you're wearing a hoodie. Some areas now have blanket evening curfews that require young people to stay in their homes.
So there's more to globalisation than economics. In the area of personal freedom, the line between totalitarian states and liberal democracies is becoming increasingly blurred.

I'm looking forward to the Olympics opening ceremony on Friday. Totalitarian states tend to be better at those. One of the best I've seen was for the World Cup in South Korea.
The Athens Olympics opening ceremony started well but then degenerated into a banal parade of carnival floats.
One of the worst was when the USA hosted the World Cup, a tacky, Disney-style show.
Most unforgettable, for all the wrong reasons, was the the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Who could ever forget that parade of Morris Minors in torrential rain with two Coronation Street stars stepping out of the front car? Iconic British images was the supposed theme but what some of the overseas visitors made of it God only knows.

An opening ceromony needs to be both spectacular and classy. Few achieve that. They tend to be either tacky and cheesy or resort to impenetrable symbolism that requires commentators to read from pages of explanation - "the blue squares represent the sea and this country's maritime heritage and the yellow squares represent fields of corn. I'm not sure what this young man in pink Lycra descending from the roof represents.......probably best not to ask."

I expect the Chinese ceremony to be tasteful, not to say tasty, but a few hours later you'll probably be wanting another one.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Rainbow Of Hatred - And Another Death

At the weekend, an 18 year old gay teenager in Liverpool, Michael Causer, died from serious head injuries following what police described as a homophobic hate attack.
My condolences go to his family and friends.

The weekend also carried reports of the Northern Irish MP Iris Robinson calling homosexuality an abomination (and 'worse than paedophilia', according to reports) while the Church of England's Lambeth Conference ended without budging from the position that homosexuality is contrary to scripture and therefore sinful.

There is no direct connection between any of these stories. The religious homophobes would deny there is any connection of any kind, asserting that they do not condone violence against gay people.
I accept the latter point. But when extreme fulminations against gay people are part of the background 'mood music' and when they come from people in positions of authority it can only provide justification, however misplaced, to those thugs who will kick to death a gay teenager.

It's noteworthy how little media coverage this killing has had. I heard about it on BBC Radio News but could not find any mention of it in print editions of the Guardian. It has received nothing like the coverage of recent stabbings, nor the coverage of the murder of the Goth girl in Bacup last August.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that in death as in life, some people are more equal than others.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Jacket of Doom

"The sight of him [Gordon Brown] trying to enjoy his holiday while wearing a grey sports jacket and a pinstriped shirt with only one button undone will be the final straw for most people......Not since Neil Kinnock's windswept collapse on a beach has a carefully engineered photo opportunity said so much about a political leader's unsuitability for the job."
- Melissa Kite in the Torygraph

I think this is the same woman I heard on the radio saying much the same thing about Gordon Brown wearing a jacket on holiday. She said "of course, it shouldn't matter" but then proceeded to say why it mattered hugely.
The only advantage to listening to such infantile burblings is that you realise that however much time and talent you might have wasted in your life, it pales into insignificance compared to the time-wasting preoccupations of cretinous media whores like this.
Note that the wearing of the jacket is not just a fashion crime. It renders him unfit to be Prime Minister.

She's not the only one. There has been acres of analysis of Brown's jacket and unfavourable comparisons with Cameron's multi-coloured shorts which apparently make the Old Etonian (whose other favourite holiday is shooting on his father-in-law's Scottish estate - no cameras allowed there, of course) a man of the people.
One of today's papers carried the even more shocking revelation that Brown had been observed wearing his jacket while lying on the beach.

Whilst I have many political disagreements with Gordon Brown, I can empathise with him in matters sartorial.
I never sally forth from Lupin Towers on even the hottest days without wearing a jacket. This is for purely practical reasons. The male jacket is a design classic that has hardly changed over the years. It usually has five different pockets. These are essential for carrying my wallet, loose change, reading glasses and possibly a mobile phone. Where do people put all these things without a jacket?

One option would be a 'man bag', a male handbag, but then the local yobs would shout "Poof!" at me. Although factually correct, I wouldn't want to give them the pleasure. It also says to a thief 'here are all my valuables handily stored in a single container for you to snatch.'
The other option is to stuff your wallet in the back pocket of your trousers, another open invitation to thieves. Yet millions of people walk around with the top of their wallet protruding from the back pocket of their jeans. These people all shop at Asda, for that supermarket had a long-running commercial that featured shoppers patting the back pocket of their jeans to indicate how much money they were saving and then offering up to some light-fingered latter-day Fagin.

Can you imagine the ridicule Brown would have suffered if he'd kitted himself out in T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops? This is the mother-and-father of no-win situations for poor Brown. But the jacket was the right choice because in matters of dress as in everything else the best policy is "to thine own self be true."
That I can identify with a man who takes a suitcase full of books on holiday and wears a jacket on the beach presumably makes me as weird as Gordon. But I don't give a fuck. And neither should he.