Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Occasionally, I surprise even me.

It's sad really, that at 28, I can find new ways of being a twat that even amaze myself. It's like an experienced farmer still being dazzled by the forces of mother nature I suppose, much to the surprise of his young servant boy, Timmy: 'I thought I'd seen it all my son, until... ha! The great hurricane of four harvests ago. Serving as a reminder of the earthly powers at God's disposal, I discovered a new found respect...' (do farmers really talk like this?)

Anyway. On Friday the 26th of June, at around 5.50pm, the following happened:

I spilled Ribena all over myself after trying to simultaneously drive and re-set my sat-nav, as I'd missed a turning because I was too busy eating a sandwich because I'd had no lunch, there being no food in the house as I'd been gigging all week and had got up late, and I was resetting the sat-nav because I knew the route it would take me was busy, because I have traffic alerts on my in-car CD player which although useful (especially in this case), I actually find hugely annoying but I'm unable to turn them off as I've lost the manual to my CD player. To cap this all off, in order to 'nip that stain in the bud,' I decided to 
deliberately pour a whole big bottle of Evian over myself, as I knew I couldn't put my t-shirt in the wash for at least 10 hours, and my mum says 'blackcurrant stains.' And I was late for the gig. Horrifically late.

So I'm sat there, in a *hired car, dripping wet from a whole bottle of water I'd poured over myself 
on purpose, sat on a gridlocked M5 thinking 'things have got to change. It's unacceptable. This can't go on.' And I was deadly serious this time, serious enough to text it to myself, so the message would sit in my inbox and remind me, and every time I considered something that deep down I knew was stupid I wouldn't do it, because of that little text. I don't know if you've ever worn an Evian drenched t-shirt whilst crawling along the motorway in a hired Daewoo Matiz, but it's quite a sobering experience. The type of sobering experience that can lead a man to text himself. I turned up at the gig, t-shirt still wet and a bit depressed as the sandwich wasn't even that nice (fifth day on the trot I'd eaten my tea in a services), and a bit concerned that I'd got Ribena over the Matiz upholstery, and immediately told the promoter. Now, the type of incident outlined above happens to me about once a week, and usually I brush it off, laugh stoically and carry on. But I was a bit miffed on Friday, as I'm tired of leading a tosser's life. Genuinely tired. Exhausted, in fact. People's reactions to this type of wankery are also almost always the same:

'It's all good material.' - For what? Writing a sit-com about twats?

'If you changed, maybe you wouldn't be as funny.' - Really? Sigh. That's depressing. Surely I've got enough of this shit in the bank now, so can't I just make the rest up? What about... man tries to eat Double Decker whilst driving and feeding his cat, the hot breath of the cat causes the Double Decker to melt, chocolate gets on the steering wheel and he crashes his car into one of those water things you see in American films, the cat gets frightened by the water - end of scene. There. The man (played by that guy from 
My Family and the BT adverts) has lost his car, his cat, and his dignity. Job done.

Despite the journey however the gig was good, the people of Barnstaple seem nice and it was lovely spending time with Isy Suttie and Nick Revell, who are great company. Whilst annoying the Evian trick also seemed to work, so well in fact I wore the t-shirt the next day, as mam's information is seemingly incorrect and the stain came out a treat. Oh well. All's well that end's well.

What with it being the run up to Edinburgh, I now spend a lot of my time writing my Edinburgh show, and organising gigs where I can drive long distances to try it out for no money. I'm not going to complain about this - it's the same for all comedians (unless they get famous), and is a downside to a job that is otherwise brilliant. That said, my preview in London last weekend was particularly depressing. The Canal Cafe Theatre in Little Venice is a bloody excellent setting for stand up, and I've had the pleasure of playing it twice when it's full. Having talked to the lovely venue manager I organised a preview for my solo show and was full of beans, imagining giving my debut hour a run out in front of a packed house, the inevitable plaudits afterwards, the celebratory drinks, taking fifty of my fans out for a meal in the West End, being knocked over by a car Graham Coxon style because I'm pissed, but dusting myself off and it all being hilarious, whilst hot babes and comedians I respect whisper 'Christ, I wish I could write call backs like you Elis, that was amazing. You're an inspiration.'

Unfortunately, this is about as realistic a dream as having the internet in your face to make online shopping easier. To anyone who knows the London comedy scene, it's about as tearjerkingly misguided as those Scottish heroin addicts you used to see on
 Comic Relief in the 80s, who'd say things like 'ah thought ah'd move tae London tae make money, because the streets would be paved with gold, ya know,' as Phil Collins played in the background and Lenny Henry choked back tears. The gig was due to start at 5pm, and at 5pm I had sold ZERO tickets. That's right - ZERO. At 5.15pm I had still sold ZERO tickets, but by now my friends Martin and the ever loyal Josh had turned up, and kept saying things like 'welcome to Edinburgh' as I fiddled with my dictaphone and worked out ways to kill myself using clutter from my leatherette manbag. Always eager to look at the positives, it was pointed out that there was no 6.30pm or 8pm show, and if I wanted, I had all night to try and cajole people from the street and get the requisite 10 audience members you need to make stand up feel like a proper gig, and not an intrusive mental person with a microphone talking at western tourists who've been taken hostage.

Being of pretty stern stuff, this was the option I went for, which just convinced me that my decision to pay for flyerers in Edinburgh was the right one. One middle aged woman was drinking wine with her daughter, and she reacted to the suggestion they come and watch my Edinburgh preview in a way that's usually reserved for watching a man with learning difficulties dip his penis into a steaming cafetiere. Two very nice men promised that they'd 'come up for fifteen minutes if they could bring their puddings,' while most people said quite honestly that 'they weren't really up for it, thankyou very much.' By 6.30pm I decided to start, as having put something on Facebook (I might be a twat but I do have a posh phone), Rhys, a friend of mine from school I'd not seen for five years turned up with his flatmate Danielle, Martin and the ever loyal Josh were still there (Josh the sweetheart had even called his mate Ian), India from the box office had nothing better to do and Damien the sound guy swelled my audience to a now respectable, er, seven. 

Now, gigs with seven punters in a room that holds 60 pose invariable problems, but problems that can be counteracted if you're used to it. At around the ten minute mark, following some self-deprecating gags about performing in front of an audience whose names I all knew, everything seemed to be going well and the show was in full swing, until I realised that Danielle had taken out some needles and was fucking 
knitting. Actually knitting. It was like being heckled by a grandmother. I asked her what she thought she was doing and she responded coolly by saying 'don't worry - I am listening.' I asked her what she was knitting and discovered that it was a scarf. On pointing out (fairly I thought) that it was fucking June and that finishing a scarf was hardly essential, she shrugged and said 'I'm halfway through it now.' In the same way that a skint student can get used to renting a windowless box room fairly quickly, I left it at that, and carried on with my car crash of a preview. The problem however, is that when jokes failed (as they inevitably will at previews in front of 7 people), the silence was punctuated uncomfortably by the 'click click click' of knitting needles, which served to make the whole experience feel even more catastrophic. Eventually, the ever loyal Josh (and you don't get a prefix like that unless you go to a lot of my gigs) muttered 'listen El, I've heard this bit of material loads before (he has, to be fair) - can you not just tell the story about when we went to Mike and Lucy's wedding?' And so I did. And then I realised that everybody else had heard my usual jokes, as Martin and I gig together, Ian is often dragged along to my shows by the ever loyal Josh, and both India and Damien as venue staff had seen my preview the previous week. By this point, I realised that being amongst friends (and Rhys has known me most my life), I could throw it open to the floor and play 'story karaoke,' and before long I was ignoring my prepared material and talking bollocks about anything that people wanted me to. 

It was quite good fun to be honest, and I think I might do something similar to this in Edinburgh, although hopefully in front of more people, and hopefully those people will listen rather than be making clothes for winter. The weirdest thing is that I've managed to become nostalgic about what was essentially quite a horrible experience, despite it being less than a fortnight ago. I have a superhuman ability you see to become nostalgic and romanticise almost anything, to a degree that is probably unhealthy. After all - did Joe Strummer sit around, reminiscing about school sports days and adverts from his childhood? No, of course he didn't. He lied about his background, changed his accent, bought a guitar and wrote a few blistering punk albums. I found myself becoming nostalgic today about a a photo that was taken of me and the ever loyal Josh sitting on a beanbag, in the GSOH office. The photo was taken
under a week ago. I sat there, staring at this photo, thinking, 'aw, what a lovely day. We had pizza at that place in Brixton, before bumping into Nighto and Jon in a cafe and going to the office for a cup of tea.' This is pathetic behaviour, and I should be ashamed of it. I'm no lost cause though. The things I can't be nostalgic about, despite my nature, are as follows:

- Glastonbury 2006. It pissed down for three days and was about as bleak as terminal illness. It was horrible, and is something I never care to repeat. End of story.

- Pretending to my first proper girlfriend that I liked jazz-funk. For 18 months. Even though I regard jazz-funk as the aural equivalent of a girl being fingered against her will on a nightclub dancefloor.  

So there you have it - the big two. Anything else - men wearing cloth caps to the football, pit disasters, shit stand up gigs, Teddy Boys slashing cinema seats with stanley knives in the 50s, the bubonic plague, the blitz, Menswear being on the cover of the NME, cavemen skinning mammoths with a sharpened bit of flint, Elizabethan ruffs, rotten boroughs, Lloyd George threatening to fill the House of Lords with Liberal peers in 1911, 30 million people watching The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special in 1977, Morrissey wearing a hearing aid on Top of the Pops...that, that I can all get nostalgic for.

But jazz-funk and a wet Glastonbury? No. Have I ever told you about the time I poured Evian on myself whilst driving to a gig in Barnstaple...?

* the reason I was driving a hired car is that I had a gig in Brecon. For those who aren't up to date with Welsh current affairs, Brecon's a town in one of those local authorities that lost all its money in Icelandic banks. Brecon now famously doesn't turn on its streetlamps because it can't afford to, which shouldn't be a problem, it's just that some fuckpouch decided to paint some of these lamposts black for 'aesthetic reasons.'  Having headlined the gig I promptly left the venue at midnight, and reversed my car into a lampost I hadn't seen. I still didn't know what I'd hit, until I got out of the car and saw (an admittedly very aesthetic looking) lampost swaying like a fairground attraction and and the back of my car looking like a prop from The Sweeney. It's dad's car and he doesn't know about this, but it's more likely I'll be using the internet on my face before my dad reads this on a computer. And I'll have it sorted by then.

NB. I think the fact that it's taken me until now to post this blog despite writing it almost a month ago, shows that the 'send yourself a text' method of self-improvement is flawed.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Eating sushi, with men

Hello there

Changing is an inevitable part of growing up, especially if your circumstances alter radically. This could be moving from a rural area to a city, quitting your A-levels to become a pagan, or becoming wildly rich in comparison with your parents. Rock biographies in particular are littered with stories about this - classics such as 'although hungry after completing a 200 date world tour, Marti Pellow brushed away angrily the tripe and dripping sandwiches his mother had lovingly prepared for him as a welcome home present.' I love that type of rags-to-riches success story, and always have done. This stuff isn't merely the preserve of rock stars though - almost all normal people occasionally have cause to think 'wow, I wouldn't have done that ten years ago,' which naturally leads to a period of reflection, unless you're quite thick, in which case you probably don't notice. On a personal level, I have changed over the past fifteen years from small town, acne ridden schoolboy, to modern, city dwelling, urbane sophisticate (hello!). This transition isn't easy of course, and last week the contradictions caused by this change were summed up perfectly to me, during a chance encounter on a train.

In a previous life, many years ago, and before stand up comedy, I spent the vast majority of my leisure time watching Swansea City FC. For any non-football fans who are reading this blog fear not. I won't wax lyrical about the sublime trigonometry of a 70 yard crossfield pass, or how Herbert Chapman revolutionised the game in the 1930s by playing four at the back, but I will say that some of the happiest moments of my life have been spent watching the Swans. In fact, the stars aligned in such a way during the 2004/05 season (no girlfriend, it was before I tried stand up, I had a small amount of disposable income and a 9-5 job), that I watched every home game at The Vetch and about 15 away, which is a personal record I fear will never be broken, unless I decide to go back into doing data entry for a living. I thus feel qualified to say that of all the away games I've attended, the ones that best sum up the mentality of the obsessive football fan, are these two:

Carlisle Utd away, 2008: There's something very special about taking the day off work to watch a game of football that's taking place a few miles from the Scottish border. Especially when it's a Tuesday night, your house is in South Wales, it's raining heavily, and the game finishes 0-0. My friend Andy prepared sausage sandwiches and two flasks of tea for that trip, which I remember just as fondly as the game itself, which to be honest, was quite uninspiring. Brilliantly, we were also given a home made parking ticket at the end of the game. It had no legal jurisdiction over us, but was merely an ornately printed post-it note that said 'Jan and Dave would appreciate it if you never parked here again.'

Torquay Utd away, first round of the LDV Vans Trophy (South), 2005: My flatmate Huw, one of my best friends and partner for every football match I've attended since the age of 11, described me as 'a sad bastard' for going to this. The first round (south) of the LDV Vans trophy is about as important to your football club as your National Record of Achievement is to your career. I have lost my National Record of Achievement - yeah, take that Mrs John! Fuck you! (Mrs John was the moronic teacher at my school who made us painstakingly fill ours in - call me arrogant, but I don't think losing my NRA will hold me back at The Comedy Store). However, I do remember the game at Torquay Utd for a several reasons:

- Torquay Utd FC had wildly over-anticipated how many Swans fans would turn up, and at full time all 89 of us in the away end were given free pies and pasties from the tuck shop 'to save them going to waste.'
- A Swansea City fan with learning difficulties was persuaded onto the pitch by his drunken carer, and was arrested and threatened with a life ban. It's only when he was questioned by police and the stewards realised his condition that he was released. There's actually footage of the whole incident on youtube, but the keywords and title are so politically incorrect I don't feel able to post a link.
- I met my friend Andy (the one responsible for the sausage sandwiches at Carlisle) in the bar before kick off. After buying a pint I settled down to read the programme, and absent mindedly put my left foot on the table. On seeing this Andy's dad whispered ominously in my ear 'take your foot down boy. You're not in Carmarthen now.'
- we won 3-1, and you could clearly see me on the news celebrating the first two goals. In a bid to make the game more exciting, Lewis (the only person I could find who'd go with me) and I tried to 'talk up' the impact of Swansea's Adebayo Akinfenwa's return to his old club. I think by the time we got to the ground we were expecting tear gas and a burning effigy, but sadly the most abuse he got was being called 'a wanker' once or twice whilst taking a corner kick. Something which happily, Bayo handled with absolute aplomb.

Anyway. The fact I enjoyed these trips so much says an awful lot about me as a character (and note how I mentioned two quite shit games, and not the two trips to the Millenium Stadium in 2006, beating Premiership Sheffield Utd in the FA Cup two years ago, winning promotion in Bury...) It's the same part of me that wasn't just willing to drive to Manchester to do stand up on a weeknight for no money and when I already had a day job, but quite enjoyed the masochistic nature of it. In fact, if I'd achieved my tiny modicum of success in this industry without those horrible drives to Tunbridge Wells, where it cost me £45 in petrol just to tell jokes for five minutes, I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much. But anyway, I digress.

Last Sunday I was travelling back from London, having had a weekend of gigs at The Comedy Cafe in Shoreditch. The Swans had been playing that weekend in Southampton, a trip that comedy permitting I would have looked forward to making, and a game that a few of my friends had attended. As I sat on the train, about to read The Observer and tut loudly at how various world leaders have dealt with the current banking crisis, I realised that the train was full of bleary eyed Swans fans, who had made a weekend of it and been out on the piss in Southampton. Excited at being amongst my people, I piped up. '2-2 eh?' I offered, 'did you go to the game?
'Aye,' said the lad on the table opposite. 'You didn't miss much to be honest, if you didn't go.'
'Oh' I replied, and explained that I would have gone, 'but had to work in London.' The men sympathised, at which point I hurriedly added that I'd been to Portsmouth the previous Saturday, for the cup tie at Fratton Park.
'Brilliant wasn't it?' we all agreed, and suddenly we were up and running, discussing the archaic facilities in the away end, and chatting about other games we'd been to. Within minutes we realised that we'd all been to Blackpool on Easter weekend in 2006, Cheltenham for that stupendous 4-3 win in August 2004, and the infamous Mansfield game, called off due to heavy rain two minutes after the Swans fans entered the ground. In short, I was having a great time. We talked about the club, hopes for the future, old players, and I spoke knowledgeably about the current side, as my flatmate Huw still goes on a regular basis and keeps me updated. It was only when they asked me what I did for a living that I began to feel slightly uncomfortable - I was talking to two electricians and a lad who worked for the DVLA, which in my opinion, count as real men doing real jobs.

I started to panic, and thought 'they're going to notice my leatherette fucking manbag* in a minute, in which I lovingly keep a Moleskine notebook for all my comedy ideas, a Kurt Vonnegut novel, 13 pens and some moisteriser. I've had my chips if they see that - shit, they'll think I'm a right fucking plum.' In fitting with the rules of polite conversation, I was eventually asked what I did for a living, and I blurted something about 'working at the newsdesk of a local rag, with lots of meetings...in London.' The men seemed perfectly satisfied with this, and again sympathised that I had to miss so many games. 'Played a straight bat there' I thought to myself. 'Jesus, I should consider writing spy fucking novels - Ian Fleming* never came up with anything that convincing.' I brought the conversation back round to last season's game at Leeds Utd, and our shared experiences of Elland Road, and the ball was firmly back in my court. I turned down the kind offer of a can of Stella, blaming an extreme hangover (I actually had a gig that night in North Wales with Rhod Gilbert, and never drink on the day of a gig), refuting protestations that it would make me feel better. It was only at this stage that I began to feel hungry, and realised that the treat I'd bought myself, a punnet of sushi from Paddington station, and something I'd been looking forward to for ages, would have to remain in the plastic bag under my seat. 'I can't realistically start eating a salmon nigiri with wasabi sauce and ginger' I thought to myself, 'when I've just been lying about fighting with police after Bristol City away at Ashton Gate' (don't worry mam, that was fictional macho posturing). Sigh. I had three options -

1. Buy something rank, but normal and manly from the buffet carriage, which would be an enormous waste of money (Yo! Sushi isn't cheap, and neither is the buffet carriage).
2. I could make my excuses before going to eat sushi in the toilet. This sounded like a cowardly, unpleasant idea though, and would make me appear even weirder if I got caught. Indefensibly weird, in fact. You can't come back from that, no matter how many reserve games you've been to and replica shirts you remember.
3. Bite the bullet hunger wise, maybe get a Snickers, and eat the sushi in my car on the way to the gig.

I opted for option 3, hungrily daydreaming about the nice food I had at my disposal, as we talked about horrible away kits from the early 1990s. I was initially a classic sushi cynic you see, assuming that it would be horrible, give me a stomach ache, or turn me into a wanker (I still can't claim this hasn't happened), but then I tried it and realised that it was bloody lovely, and now have it as a special treat from time to time. As we laughed about QPR being sponsored by Guinness in the late 80s, my mind wandered to the food that was rapidly going off under my seat. 1980s shirt sponsor banter? Old away trip reminiscing? New best friends? I should have been having the time of my life. Despite all this however, and, despite being a sushi advocate, I didn't feel I could eat sushi in the company of actual men. I'm a rational man, and knew I'd put in good conversational legwork early on, and was fairly sure they liked me (I really can hold my own in a football chat, especially if it turns to the period 1988-1995), but whipping out sushi on public transport was a step too far. This whole conundrum wouldn't be an issue usually, and I wouldn't go on about it. It's just that in my haste to conceal my semi-girly manbag on alighting the train, I forgot the fucking sushi under my seat and thus suffered the double whammy of going hungry and wasting seven quid all in one go. Unbelievable. Devastating.

I assume Ray Winstone has experiences like this all the time.

* as lovingly as I attempt to keep my Moleskin notebook spotless (and they are bloody expensive as well as having an intrinsic sentimental value), I am still, ultimately, a bit of an idiot. On my way to London for the weekend's gigs, I bought a big packet of Jaffa Cakes on the train. Unable to finish the Jaffa Cakes but keen to avoid waste (see above), I stored the Jaffa Cakes in my manbag. By the time I got to The Comedy Cafe in East London I'd dropped the manbag, thrown it over some railway sidings, pretended it was a shield in a terrorist siege and used it as a pillow. I then stayed at my friend Tom Craine's house, where of course, I kept it next to the radiator. The next time I looked inside the manbag, desperately searching for a pen to write a shite idea that will never see the light of day, I realised the Jaffa Cakes had come out of the packet and melted over every Moleskine notebook I've ever written in, my gig diary, pens, Kurt Vonnegut novel and Steve Martin book. It doesn't end there though, the Jaffa Cake orange jelly had congealed and sealed the books shut, forcing me to spend an hour waiting for it all to dry before picking Jaffa Cake off some of my prized possesions. It's at this stage my dad would say 'that'll teach you,' and suggest I buy cheaper notebooks from WHSmiths, but I'm not just a sucker - I'm a stubborn one.

P.S In praise of Portsmouth
I mentioned above that I went to watch The Swans play Portsmouth in the FA Cup third round a few weeks ago. It was quite good draw for us, facing a Premiership team with a dodgy manager when we were on a good run of form, and a good draw for me, as I was gigging in Bristol that night, and could make it back in time to pay my rent without having to miss a possible cup upset. Football fans will already know that we beat Pompey 2-0, and it was one of the best games of football I've witnessed for ages. It did strike me however, quite how much my enjoyment of the footballing experience is nothing to do with the game itself, but dependent on extraeanous factors which a non-football fan, or dare I say it, a top four supporting 'fan' who lives hundreds of miles away from 'his club' wouldn't understand. For a start there was a healthy number of Swans supporters, about 3,200. This included most of my football watching friends as well as Huw's girlfriend Anwen, who Huw had misguidedly assumed would enjoy 'the banter.' I had driven to the game alone so I could get to Bristol in time for my gig, whereas everyone else had caught the 8am rattler from Cardiff Central - by the time I arrived in Portsmouth all 3,200 Swans fans were hammered, which was great. A new song about our manager got its proper debut: 'Na na na na na na na na na na na! Robbie Martinez! Martinez! Robbie Martinez!' (to the tune of 1983's 'Give it up' by KC & the Sunshine Band'), and there was a bigger police presence outside the ground than at the last G8 meeting and the poll tax demonstrations combined. Added to this however, it must be said that Fratton Park is a total joy. Not in the sense of adequate legroom and a toilet seat you could eat your dinner off, quite the opposite in fact. It's like watching football in about 1983. The Swans fans stood without question throughout, the Fratton Park stewards realising that people taking their allocated seats was about as likely as inner city knife crime being passed off by Gordon Brown as 'youthful high-jinks,' or GCSE golf becoming part of the national curriculum. This Health and Safety based chaos was quite exciting to the modern football fan, as willfully standing on the yellow lines (the part of the stand serving as the fire exit) is probably the only form of civil disobedience left available to the white, middle class male in his late twenties. The celebrations when we scored the first goal were amongst the most raucous I've ever experienced, and not only did I hurt my leg, but I managed to get meat and potato pie on the inside of both of my shirt sleeves, as frankly I was hungry and Nathan Dyer's sweet finish from a beautiful Jason Scotland pass took me completely by surprise. That to me you see, is football. Goal celebrations that cause injuries and a pie stain that will never come out.

*Ian Fleming is for some reason, buried in Swindon.