Again: “Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow”

The comedy film which triggered the problem

The comedy film which Sony Pictures pulled from release…

So Sony have had to withdraw their film The Interview because North Korea hacked-into their computer system, stole their whole electronically-stored and communicated information for the last ten years and threatened a 9/11 style attack on anywhere premiering the movie. And all because Sony made a movie in which Kim Jong-un was assassinated and his head was seen exploding.

I was in North Korea in 1986 and I talked to a girl in a bookshop in Pyongyang. She told me she had actually seen – in the flesh – not a photo but the real person… Yes…  She had SEEN and been IN THE PRESENCE OF… she had actually MET the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. As she told me this, her eyes shone like exploding supernovas. It was as if she had seen Jesus. Well, meeting Jesus would have been nothing compared to meeting the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

March 1986 - Status of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang

March 1986 – A statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang. To get an idea of scale, two people are visible at the bottom of the frame

North Korea had built 1984 even before it WAS 1984.

I went back in 2012.

Below is the blog I posted about my last day in North Korea two years ago.

I wrote a diary of my time in North Korea on pieces of paper which I always kept in the inside pockets of my clothes. I typed it all up only after getting home safely to the UK.


19th April 2012

CONFESS YOUR CRIMES AGAINST THE PEOPLE OF NORTH KOREA OR YOU WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY TOMORROW…

April - Kim Il-sung (with glasses added) and Kim Jong-Il

April 2012 – Kim Il-sung plus son Kim Jong-il

In North Korea, you can see new buildings being constructed as skeletons of concrete, brick and stone but rough and unsophisticated. The final surfaces, though, are very well-designed and finished. They look superficially perfect.

There is another simile for North Korea here. It looks OK from a cursory glance but, underneath…

The Chinese build better foundations.

It seems to me the Chinese have tried to change their society from the bottom upwards. The North Koreans manage any change from the top downwards. They start with the triumphant monuments to success and then (ironically in this supposed people’s paradise but – hey! – this is Communism) there is a rigid hierarchy through which change may trickle down to the bottom though it seems not to have done in the 26 years since I was last here.

North Korea: the people’s paradise

North Korea: the people’s paradise is truly a place of wonder

One odd feature in the relentless propaganda is that, since I was last here, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s mother and early wife seem to have appeared as pseudo Mary Mother of Jesus figures. I do not remember them being mentioned before; now they occasionally appear in pictures. Both long dead, of course. The best icons are.

This is my last day in the People’s Paradise. The train out of North Korea leaves Pyongyang at 10.10am this morning. It arrives in Beijing at 8.33am tomorrow morning. No US passport holders are allowed to take the train out of North Korea; they have to fly out.

In the train, I have lunch with a British woman who lives in New York (she has a British passport). She was at the big military parade to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. The one we were not allowed to go to. She was with another foreigner who reckoned some of the giant rockets on display were not real: they were possibly made from wood. She does not know; he did not know; I do not know; this is North Korea; I only mention it as an observation from someone who was there.

She told me someone else she knows managed, accidentally, to go onto the ‘hidden’ floor in their hotel – the floor at which lifts do not stop. There was no decor. Just a bare concrete corridor and bare walls. The door to one room was slightly ajar. He looked through the crack. A man was sitting looking at a TV monitor. He left the floor quietly and returned to the ‘allowed’ parts of the hotel.

I also get talking to a man who is one of the three others I share the four-berth compartment with on this train from Pyongyang to Beijing. He was born in a Western European country (which shall remain nameless to disguise his identity). But he has lived in the US for many years. So he has both a US passport and a passport from the European country of his birth. Obviously, as he is on the train, he is using his European passport.

Pyongyang skyline dwarfed by unfinished hotel (not the  Yanggakdo)

Skyline dwarfed by an unfinished hotel (not the Yanggakdo)

Last night, he was booked into the same hotel as me – the Yanggakdo in Pyongyang. He came into North Korea with a Kindle e-reader and a laptop computer which the border guards did not query because neither has GPS.

In my opinion, he was silly on the North Korean trip. He was not in my group, but he told me he had sat at the front of his tour bus, near the two guides, taking photographs of the North Korean countryside (which is not allowed). He had also, with a fellow group member, wandered out of their hotel one night unaccompanied. Again, this is not allowed.

Last night, there was a problem with the keys to his hotel room which escalated to the point at which he was taken off to a room in the hotel and interrogated for seven hours, from 8.00pm to 3.00am.

“Why have you been taking bad photographs to make our country look bad?” the questions started, before moving on to “Why have you been disrespectful of our guides?” and so on, round and round in circles for seven hours with five interrogators.

A poster inside the state film studios

A poster inside the state’s empty  film studios

“You are not a real tourist,” they eventually said. “You have been taking photographs of people in the countryside and in the towns. They are all waiting downstairs to denounce you… We have talked to the other members of your group. They all say you are not a real tourist. You are a spy. We know you are here to spy on our country and take bad photographs.”

They brought in an IT expert with a laptop computer which he attached to the man’s laptop computer to search the hard disk. They then confiscated the hard disk. They then looked through all the still photographs he had taken and erased a lot. “Where have you hidden the other memory cards?” he was asked.

“I have no other memory cards,” he told them. But the questioning and re-questioning went on for seven hours.

It escalated more and more.

“You will not be allowed to leave the country,” they told him. You have committed crimes against the people of North Korea. Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

“You must sign a confession to your crimes,” he was told, “or you will not be allowed to leave the country. If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea, we will publish your confession on the internet.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

He eventually signed the ‘confession’.

“You have committed crimes against North Korea,” he was then told. “You must compensate North Korea. Do you have $10,000?”

When he made it clear he was not carrying $10,000 on him, they feigned anger that he thought he could bribe them.

North Korea loves a good symbolic building

North Korea loves a good symbolic building, whatever it costs

“If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea,” they told him, “or continue your crimes after you have left our country or tell anyone this interrogation has taken place, we will publish your confession to your crimes on the internet.”

“They were frightening but not very efficient,” he tells me. “I had a video camera in my case and they never looked. I declared it at the border on the way in, but they never knew it was there. It had much ‘worse’ images.”

After he was released at 3.00am, he went back to his room and erased all the material he had shot on his video camera. He did this under his bed covers in case – as well as having sound bugs – the hotel room had video bugs.

I wonder what will happen at the border.

This could go one of two ways for me.

I am sharing a compartment with the guy.

Either I will be given a bad time because I will get guilt by association. Or I will sail through because the border guards will focus so much on him.

At the border, the first North Korean border guard comes into our compartment and goes straight for him.

“Camera,” he says.

Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph - bigger than the French one

Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph is bigger than the French one

Three other North Korean border guards come in. I go and stand in the corridor as they interrogate the guy, go through his stills camera, picture by picture, find the video camera in his case and examine that.

“My camera – my stills camera – takes videos and I have my video camera too,” he tells them, “but I took no videos while I was in North Korea.”

I think, listening to this in the corridor, that it must sound more than a little suspicious.

“You have more memory cards,” the guards say. “Where are your other memory cards?”

“I have no other memory cards,” he tells them.

“Do you have memory cards hidden in your hair?” one of them asks him.

They interrogate him for around 35 minutes. Then they turn to me:

“Camera,” the guard barks at me.

I give him my camera. He looks at all the photographs. There are 168 on the memory card. He erases 17 of them – one of the border at Panmunjom, mostly just photos of ordinary people in the very public Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang.

There are only three sets of photos on that memory card: Panmunjom, Kim Il-sung Square and the music concert we attended in Pyongyang. I had intentionally taken the Panmunjom photos so they could, if necessary, be erased. The other 900+ photos I had taken in North Korea are on another memory card in the rolled-up sleeve of my shirt.

The guards never ask if I have a video camera. Which I do, with five one-hour tapes filled-up.

Afterwards, the European guy tells me that, halfway through his grilling by the border guards, he realised that the European passport on which he was travelling in North Korea had an out-of-date visa for China in it. His up-to-date visa for China was in the US passport in his bag, which the guards superficially searched. They did not realise he had a second, US passport (remember US citizens cannot legally leave North Korea by train) and they did not check the dates on the Chinese visa in his European passport. But, he tells me, “I was shitting myself.”

Soldiers grieving over the death of Kim Jong-Il

Official photo: Soldiers grieving over the death of Kim Jong-il

The guards were paranoid, but not very efficient. However, they may have been hungry.

In another apartment in the railway carriage, a female border guard saw a chocolate bar in the suitcase of some Swiss travellers. She looked at their passports. “Swiss?” she asked. “Yes,” they replied. She unwrapped the chocolate bar and ate it, unsmiling, in front of the two Swiss. “It is good chocolate,” she told them.

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In order to speak and perform Italian language comedy, you have to live it

Romina Puma

Romina Puma, creator of fortnightly shows

Last night, in London’s Soho, I went to fortnightly Italian language comedy night Laboratorio di Cabaret – Il Puma Londinese. They usually have at least one English language act.

This is the fourth of their shows I have been to and I understand about a quarter of one percent of what is going on in the Italian parts. But the atmosphere is hugely enjoyable and, to illiterate me, the shows are like watching abstract comedy performance. I watch the visual performance and can appreciate the structure of the emotional delivery of the words and feel the emotional meaning of the words, even though I don’t understand the words.

Last night I went with comedy critic Kate Copstick, who is multilingual – she can speak English, Italian, Swahili and Glaswegian. She has written guidebooks to Italy.

“Did you understand 100%?” I asked.

“Maybe 90%,” she told me. “But, in Italian, people take a lot more words to say stuff so, in a way, to get the gist, you only need to understand 90%. One of the wonderful things about Italian conversation is it’s ‘Big’. You maybe say things twice or in three different ways. You just say more than you would in English.”

“Earlier today,” I said, “I was talking to someone about Irish English and it’s often more meandering than most English English and Irish people have told me it’s because the Gaelic is not a succinct language: it, too, needs more words.”

“There is just such fun in saying things in Italian,” said Copstick. “Alex Martini (the compere) was terrific – great energy and quintessentially Italian – which is a GOOD thing. Really, really likeable. But a night like tonight also proves there is an element to comedy that goes beyond the words. I didn’t understand 100% but I laughed more than I do in a lot of good English language gigs. It’s the feeling of fun and enjoyment and laughter.

(From left) Marouen Mraihi., Giada Garofalo, Giacinto Palmieri, Romina Puma, Alex Martini after last night’s show

(From left) Marouen Mraihi., Giada Garofalo, Giacinto Palmieri, Romina Puma, Alex Martini after last night’s show

“Those two girls – Romina Puma and Giada Garofalo – warm, funny, confident and out there – they really brought the audience into it all. Very warm, very female, very anecdotal.

“If you translated their set into English, it’s just very anecdotal, chatty, kinda Sarah Millican-ish. But the energy and the whole character of doing it in Italian just pulls you in so much more.”

“I have an English friend,” I told Copstick, “who worked in Tokyo then married an Italian and now lives in Milan – so she’s good at languages – and she told me the only way to speak Italian is to ‘live’ the language. You can’t just say Italian words with English speech rhythms: you have to almost perform Italian. Saying the plain words just doesn’t work.”

“Absolutely,” said Copstick. “Giacinto Palmieri is warm and wonderful when he performs in English but, in Italian, it’s like someone has lit a fire under him. In English, he is black and white; it Italian, he is in colour.

“What your friend said about ‘living it’… the minute you translate the Italian words into English in your head, it’s not as funny. The whole approach to the story and the whole way of telling stories in Italian is just different. Literally – to coin Frank Carson’s old phrase – it’s the way they tell ‘em.”

Kate Copstick enjoyed my lively wit (Photograph by Giada Garofalo)

Copstick found herself unable to resist my captivating wit last night (Photograph by Giada Garofalo)

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Filed under Comedy, Italy, Language, UK

Why Jesus was not born in Scotland

Today, more news from this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith. She writes from Vancouver:


In Vancouver, Ben from Glasgow.(Photograph by Anna Smith)

Ben from Glasgow, making a living in Vancouver (Photograph by Anna Smith)

Ben from Glasgow tells me the reason Jesus was not born in Scotland was because they couldn’t find a wise man there.

Ben says he did stand up comedy in Toronto and was a jockey… I believe him… He has one joke after the next, is five foot one and knows about horses.

He told me he used to train race horses at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, then he worked his way out west exercising horses or swamping out stables, asking for temp work at racetracks. At one racetrack in Winnipeg, they asked him what he could do. He said: “Fuck, fight and fiddle.”

He was hired right away.

Scots boxer Benny Lynch (1913-1946)

Scottish boxer Benny Lynch (1913-1946)

He says he is the grandson of Scottish boxer Benny Lynch and, as soon as I looked up Benny Lynch, I could see it. He looks just like him and has the same mannerisms. He told me it was no picnic for his father – or any of them at that time, by the sounds of it.

But he still is laughing. A very cheerful guy… mostly.

For some reason he likes me. He let me know how to find him. It might be funny to do a rigged boxing match with him. They say I have a good left hook.

Meanwhile, Mark Steck, the bearded  motorcycling novelist from Missouri who sold me his book Artless not long ago, emailed me from California. He is in a redwood forest, reading your blog, on his way to Mexico.

I am moving back to my boat. A doctor named Derek Human (Head of Cardiology at the University of British Columbia) told me last week that my heart looks fine.

Anna Smith is no stranger to the hospitals of Vancouver

Anna Smith is no stranger to the hospitals of Vancouver

He said that my hose is definitely not coming loose – if anything it is stronger, as the scar tissue is holding everything so well in place that it will never fall apart.

They did almost a week of various scans, including four hours in an MRI where I was played Baroque concertos, which made me cry a bit.

All my neighbours on the river are happy that I am coming back and are talking about how great it is to live where you can throw potato peels out of the window. I agreed. I told them how horrible it is to live in an apartment and put all the food scraps in a bucket.

Are they using the term ‘lumbersexual’ in the UK? I noticed that a friend of mine who is a civil servant has been looking more like a lumberjack every day.

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Filed under Scotland, Medical, Canada, Boxing

Award-winning comedy performer John Robertson: Blood and Charm and S&M

John Robertson - 17th December 2014

John Robertson in Dean Street, Soho, yesterday afternoon

Comedy performer John Robertson was brought up in Perth, Australia and now lives with his wife Jo Marsh in London. He is probably best known as creator of The Dark Room show. I had tea with John yesterday afternoon in Soho. He was on his way to the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society’s British Comedy Awards to receive an award.

“What is tonight’s award for?” I asked.

“The awards which are being given out,” he told me, “are not for anything. People were booked for the evening on the basis of whether they wanted to present or receive an award. I quite like the idea of going to an un-real awards ceremony to not receive an award. So I have to go and say Thankyou for something that isn’t occurring.”

“Have a pen,” I said and gave him a pen. “It’s an award from my blog.”

“I always take the title of your blog – So It Goes,” said John, “to be a Kurt Vonnegut reference.”

“Yes,” I said. “Also, in my erstwhile youth, Tony Wilson – you know the movie 24 Hour Party People? – he used to present a Granada TV music programme from Manchester called So It Goes. Presumably also a hommage to Slaughterhouse-Five.”

“Manchester,” said John, “is a place I never end up in.”

“At that time,” I said, “it was nicknamed Madchester. I had the chance to go to Tony Wilson’s Hacienda club a few times but never went because I thought it was probably some naff disco. It wasn’t, of course. I should have gone.”

“In Perth,” said John, “I used to go to a Goth club called Sin and everyone there was crapping on about how much better it was when it was called Dominion.

“But I really preferred Sin cos Dominion I just associated with… Dominion was where my really dumb 14-year-old friends were getting in without being carded and then coming back having done some dull, faint half-S&M with each other.”

“S&M?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said John. “A little bit of the old bondage. The third time I went to Sin, I took a crucifix and all the girls kept trying to sit on it to prove a point. They were trying to do The Exorcist.”

“How old were you?” I asked.

“About 18.”

“Aged 16,” I asked, “what did you want to be?”

John Robertson

Aged 16, John Robertson wanted to be lawyer

“I wanted to be a lawyer, because I understood that’s where the money was. But, at school, someone’s dad was a very well-known barrister. He came in, gave us a talk and just revealed himself to be the most dull man on the planet. So I gave up on that dream. It was a bit dry and boring.”

At this point, I started to take some photographs of John.

“Let me see?” he asked. “Oh, can you send me that one? I like the crucifixion imagery behind me.”

“What am I going to write a blog about?” I asked. “What have you been up to?”

“Last week,” said John, “I went down to the face-sitting protest outside Parliament.”

“That was,” I checked, “something about protesting against restrictive new pornography laws?”

“Yes.”

“Did you sit on a face or were you sat on?”

“I watched,” said John. “I defaulted to my usual position. There was some Dutch TV talk show host running around inviting people to penetrate themselves with his microphone. But the whole thing was really deeply charming. All these very English people: We’re here to protect our rights. We’re being quirky and eccentric. It was the most English style of protest I can imagine. There was a woman wearing jodhpurs and tweed sitting on someone’s face while drinking a cup of tea.”

By this time, John was drawing with the pen I had given him.

John’s drawing of a man with a tie

John’s drawing of a man with a tie & big nose

“All I can do is just variations of men in a tie,” he told me. “That’s all I do. Men in ties.”

“Looks a bit like a dodgy Fagin,” I said.

“When I was a kid in Perth and used to draw people,” said John, “I was always roundly criticised because I gave everyone a nose that looked like a dick. Just a big phallic nose. And I still do. Everyone ends up with this distended, bulbous thing.”

“What was growing up in Perth like?” I asked.

“When I was a boy, there was a news report which started: If you were to take a rifle and fire it down St George’s Terrace at midnight, you would normally hit nothing. Except last night, when you would have hit a stolen Army personnel carrier. A guy had broken into the barracks, stolen an Army personnel carrier and just driven it through the completely empty middle of Perth.”

“Nowadays,” I said, “that would go viral on YouTube.”

“I once watched a documentary,” John continued, “where a porn star was asked: What do you like? And she said: Well, I like stuff in my mouth. Because, since I was a child, people have been shoving things into my mouth. The interview didn’t take it any further than that but she said to cope with it she fetishised it.”

“Shoving things into her mouth?” I asked.

“Whether she meant dummies or dentists or abuse I don’t know,” said John. “I hope it wasn’t abuse. I took it to be more of a dental thing. Perhaps she just had a particularly bad reaction to oral dental work and needed to build something to cope with it. Strange, isn’t it?

This morning’s newspaper headline in London

This morning’s newspaper headline in London

“I woke up this morning to news of the massacre in Pakistan and I thought: That’s too difficult. 132 schoolchildren have been murdered. That’s too hard to process. But imagine the luxury of being able to say: That’s too hard to process. I mean, Life is too hard to process.

“I also just read the note points – the summary – of the CIA torture report and, as someone who’s into S&M, that makes very uncomfortable reading. You’re thinking Oh, that’s dreadful, but getting a faint tingle. S&M is a combination of the things that horrify you and sex.”

“Are you into S&M?” I asked.

“Hugely,” said John. “Hugely. I’m a bondage man.”

“Is it OK to quote that?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said John. “I went to the face-sitting demonstration. I wasn’t there for no reason. I’m fascinated because, since coming to London, through all this ‘British repression’, you just have to say You know what I like? Bondage and other people will say Oh, yes, actually, I do too… and everyone comes out.”

“It’s not my thing,” I said. “I’m into M&S not S&M. I think it may be an English rather than a British thing. The cliché explanation is that it’s the English public school system does it…”

“I’ve been to a Scottish bondage club,” said John. “They were playing The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ The Impression That I Get, which is a great song for a bondage club.

“But the thing about English public schools… I went to an all-boys school in Australia and, on the first day of being in the ‘big school’, we were not given lockers, we were given these cages that were roughly the size of a boy. Within about an hour, a kid called Cayden had been shoved in and locked in one. He ended up getting stabbed with various things.”

“You should do an Edinburgh Fringe show about it,” I suggested.

“I did,” said John. “In 2012. It was called Blood and Charm.”

“Well,” I said, “that destroys any pretence I might have that I know what’s happening or happened at the Fringe. Why Blood and Charm?”

“I saw a show done by a very dear friend of mine and the opening line was: The things in this show didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true. So I thought: What if I take a whole bunch of true stuff and I complement it with real fantasy nonsense – a lot of bloodthirsty fairy tales and things like that – and treat both with the same disdain? So I started with: My father killed himself.

“Did he?”

“Yes, my dad hung himself. So I thought I’ll weave that through and do this Hansel & Gretel thing and then this thing that sounds like it’s real and which ends with this zombie vagina and then…”

“What’s a zombie vagina?” I asked.

John Robertson - Blood and Charm

John Robertson – Blood and Charm at the Edinburgh Fringe

“The vagina of a zombie. It kills you. It’s the end of a story where this man looks at this woman and then suddenly this hand shoots out of her vagina and gouges out his eyes and pulls him in and eats him, really chomps on him.”

“Well,” I said, “I could say We’ve all been there… but…”

“All I ever wanted,” said John, “was to be isolated and left with my thoughts that may or may not be real.”

“Eh?” I asked.

“I thought, if I said that, it would make a good end to your blog.”

“It possibly needs explanation,” I suggested.

“I just wanted to be left alone with the people I love and the people I want to do strange and terrible things to and have a great time and make a great deal of money telling you what I think.”

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Comics, bankers & surgeons: Sociopaths

Lindsay Sharman with some quiet opinions (Photo by Tigz Rice)

Lindsay Sharman expresses some opinions on comedians (Photograph by Tigz Rice)

“So you are telling me all comedians are sociopaths?” I asked comedian Lindsay Sharman.

“Not all,” she said. “Just some.”

“I never know,” I told her, “the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths.”

“I think it’s the level to which they have violent impulses,” said Lindsay. “Shall I go through the symptoms?”

“Simpsons?” I asked.

“Symptoms,” said Lindsay. “The main one is a lack of empathy: an inability to understand other people’s emotions. Hence a lot of them become mimics, so they can move throughout society easily. They become excellent mimics of what they think other people want to hear and see. So a lot of them are very charming and have very close relationships which, at some point, break down because the other person ends up getting mistreated by them. The sociopath will emotionally manipulate people in order to go for their weaknesses and vulnerabilities to bond them closer to them.”

“Just sounds like men with women and vice versa,” I suggested.

“There are other things that tie them to the comedy community,” said Lindsay. “They’re very promiscuous, because they don’t necessarily form very close bonds. And there’s a high incidence of bi-sexuality…”

“I’ve not noticed that in comedians,” I said, surprised. “I mean the bi-sexuality.”

“Yeah, well, maybe not all comedians,” said Lindsay.

“I was reading the other day,” I said, “about a high incidence of promiscuity among people in a particular bank branch in Regents Street. Someone who worked there was saying everyone was bonking everyone else.”

“That’s just them self-aggrandising their workplace,” said Lindsay. “Look at us! We’re all bonking all the time!

Sociopaths are also,” she continued, “constantly observing – to understand human behaviour so they can absorb it. It’s this outsider position while desperately trying to be an insider and there’s also an element of game playing to the whole thing. They seem to go through life like a video game – like it’s all about levels and achievements.”

The City of London - home to sociopathy and promiscuity?

The City of London – a hotbed of promiscuity and sociopathy?

“But bankers are the same aren’t they?” I asked.

“Yes,” agreed Lindsay. “And the reason why there’s a lot of sociopathic behaviour among financiers and CEOs is because they’re not risk averse. The things that would scare the crap out of us, they just do. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t matter: they’ll just try another thing. They’re accumulating power and points and they don’t care if other people are adversely affected.

“The people who brought down banks and wiped out people’s pensions probably are not kept awake at all at night by that. They’re probably just planning their next move to get back on top of the heap.”

“But comedians are terrified of everything,” I said. “I’ve seen comics virtually shit themselves before they go on stage.”

“There’s adrenaline,” countered Lindsay. “A lot of sociopaths will create difficult situations for themselves because they enjoy the challenge and the adrenaline associated with getting out of those situations. I’m not saying all comedians are sociopaths but, in a lot of the different problems which different comedians have, I think there might be an element of it. Sociopaths have also got a very high regard for themselves. Quite narcissistic.”

“But,” I said, “comedians have got terrible problems of self-doubt.”

“They say that,” agreed Lindsay, “but they think that’s what people want to hear. It’s that duality of thinking you’re constantly screwing it up while thinking you’re the best thing in the world. They’ve got rock-solid self-esteem while knowing they can screw up quite a lot.”

“So comedians have simultaneous low self-esteem and high self-esteem?” I asked.

“I think that’s a very comedian thing,” said Lindsay. “There’s an arrogance in even trying it in the first place. And part of sociopaths’ charm is that they’ll use humour as a mechanism to hide the fact they have no feelings. They know people are attracted to humour.

Surgeons - are they a bunch of sociopaths too?

Surgeons. Are they also a bunch of sociopaths or psychopaths?

“Some other industries do attract sociopaths. The financial world. Any world which can bestow prestige and in which it’s helpful to not have too many empathic feelings. Top surgeons who carve into bodies all the time and have to see the body as just a collection of tubes. Anyone who climbs to the top of the heap.”

“But surely,” I said, “everyone is trying to climb to the top of some heap, even if it’s small and parochial.”

“Well,” replied Lindsay, “it has become a bit hip to say you’re on the autism scale. It might make more sense to say we’re somewhere on the empathy scale. I like to think of myself as an empathic person but, if I was really empathic, I would be a vegetarian. I am quite happy to eat animals which have been slaughtered.

“Intelligent sociopaths who have been raised in empathic environments will try and replicate what an empath does, though they might only go for free range eggs or something. Whereas a lot of people who are empathic use their emotions as a terrible excuse for atrocities – like blowing up an anti-abortion clinic. That’s all about emotions and nothing about logic. In fact, either end of the scale is not great, really.

“Maybe comedy commissioners should be recruited from fallen financiers who have taken too many risks. The trouble with the current UK comedy commissioning scene is that is seems to be populated by a load of scared people. They all seem scared to lose prestige, to lose their job, to look like an idiot. They don’t take any risks.

“There have always been people scared in their jobs, not willing to risk things, but I just think it’s getting a bit endemic. And now they’re all thinking: Oh! We’ve got to be relevant because apparently this thing called ‘the internet’ is taking over. So now they do things like look at YouTube hits and go: Oh! Let’s give him a programme! Hence Dapper Laughs. He wouldn’t have got a programme if it hadn’t been for panicked TV commissioners. It’s idiotic. If they did what the internet does, they’d have wall-to-wall pandas on slides and kittens falling off tables.”

“When you say comedians are sociopaths, though,” I said, “you’re describing any person really. Dustmen probably want to get to the top of their profession.”

“No,” said Lindsay. “I think a lot of people are very happy doing what they’re doing. They have different priorities. I’ve had quite a few different jobs in my time and the majority of the people I’ve worked with outside comedy are happy doing what they’re doing and they’d prefer not to have the stress of extra responsibility. I don’t think everyone is hungrily ambitious. You’ve probably spent too much time around comedians, John. You’re starting to think most people are ambitious.”

“No. I think most people are barking mad,” I told her, “and that’s the good side of them. I think most comedians are terrified.”

“Like I said earlier,” replied Lindsay, “I don’t think all comedians are sociopaths, “just that there might be a high incidence. The incidence of sociopaths and psychopaths among the top tier of financiers is supposed to be much higher than in the general population. And I think that might be the case with comedians too.”

Don’t blame Lindsay - she’s only giving an opinion

Don’t blame Lindsay – she’s only giving her opinion!

“Other comedians,” I said,  “are going to hate you implying they might be sociopaths.”

“Some of them definitely are. Some of the ones who are a bit more ruthless and careerist – maybe they have an element of it? That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with being ambitious. I find the more successful comedians think: I know exactly what works. I know my schtick. And they do it with such conviction and belief in themselves that audiences can get swept up in it.”

I said: “It sounds like being a sociopath might help in career terms.”

“Probably,” Lindsay replied. “If you’re not so bridled by morality and guilt, then you…”

“Guilt?”

“If you have absolutely no remorse for anything, if you don’t care about the pain you might cause others, then you probably will be incredibly successful in business. And comedy. And you won’t be hung up on artistic integrity – Screw you! I’m going to do this because it will give me greater exposure and more money and that’s what it’s all about.”

So are you a sociopath?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” said Lindsay.

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It Might Get Ugly – Karl Schultz loves comic Janey Godley but not milk toast

Karl Schultz

Karl Schultz with his latest haircut & thoughts

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog chat with comics Karl Schultz and Joz Norris about their annual charity gig in aid of Karl’s charity. After Joz left, I kept on talking to Karl.

“You’re all about re-invention,” I said. “you’ve had a lot of different haircuts this year.”

“I get bored,” replied Karl. “I’m trying to think of different ways to change Matthew Kelly.”

“Are you still doing that Matthew Kelly character?” I asked. “I thought you had finished with it.”

“I’ve been doing it again recently, after a year of It Might Get Ugly.”

It Might Get Ugly was/is a series of comedy evenings organised by Karl in which performers have to go on stage and tell totally true 15-minute stories about themselves.

“You had Janey Godley on the show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe,” I said.

“She,” said Karl, “was my favourite thing about Edinburgh. She’s got thousands of just amazing stories. What can you not like about her? I love Janey. She’s a comic who can handle anyone and she won’t be precious. She is so great. I can imagine her being an amazing actor. I fell in love with her the way I fell in love with David Mills when he first did it.”

“Very different comics,” I said. “What were you like when you started performing comedy?”

“When you start,” said Karl, “it comes as a shock. I was about 19 the first time I performed and you’re in this big nervous energetic space. It was like a heightened reality. I was thinking faster. I had different conversations going on in my head – what I was saying and what I was thinking – almost like Eskimo singers.”

“Eskimo singers?” I asked.

“Hitting different octaves,” replied Karl. “Then years go by and, even though you might be constantly surprised, shock doesn’t visit you as much. I believe shock is way more important to growth than something being ‘moving’. A moving gig is either good or bad, but a gig that shocks you has real impact.

“After four years of doing Matthew Kelly, I found that I wasn’t writing as much material as I should have. I had a bit of material but was improvising the whole time and Improv often stands for impoverished as much as improvised.”

“But you are continuing the character?” I asked.

Karl as his character 'Matthew Kelly’ with some Chinese fans

Karl as his character ‘Matthew Kelly’ with some Chinese fans

“Yes,” said Karl. “What I’m enjoying with Matthew Kelly at the moment is playing with biographies. There is the character as himself. There’s Matthew Kelly telling stories about me when I was younger, almost as if Karl Schultz was the character. Then there’s me as Matthew Kelly, talking about experiences I have had as the Matthew Kelly character. And then there’s the sort of philosophy behind the whole thing. But it’s complicated to do that.

“I had this idea a couple of months ago… When you wake up, it takes you a couple of seconds to find yourself and I was obsessing over that and the idea that the day is a parasite and you, in that moment of awakening, are the host. So the parasite of the day lives through you as the host. It’s not comedic in itself, but I thought Matthew Kelly could be the day having fun on someone. It’s like a playful parasite. Even if I don’t communicate it to the audience, that can be what motivates the character.

“In a very American way, I subscribe to the idea of personal growth and the idea that a young artist should be trying to move his brain forward. That’s partly why I do all these different things: as a vehicle to move my personal philosophy forward.”

“What,” I asked, “helps you do that?”

“More than anything,” said Karl, “making mistakes and owning up to them. Nothing undermines something difficult to face up to more than accepting it. If you think: I am going to be visited-upon by dark clouds in my mind… If you can accept that, it completely undermines it.

Karl Schultz deep in thought

Karl Schultz is not going to Switzerland soon

“Two days ago, I had a dark night of the soul on the District Line between Temple and Bow stations and the way I got through that was just by accepting it. All the credence I wanted to give to those imaginings of trips to Switzerland… it was undermined.”

“Trips to Switzerland?” I asked.

“Well,” said Karl, “you know…”

“Oh,” I said, “Exit. So why did you start It Might Turn Ugly?”

“I wondered if I could create a performance space where you are watching someone do something that might move them forward and you are watching that play out. I told people: Fifteen minutes. No ‘material’. Try to be honest. The idea is that you should not be able to do it the next night.”

“What,” I asked, “did you want to be when you were aged 16? A novelist?”

“No. I wanted to be Nick Drake. If I hadn’t been a comedian, I would have been some jazz-inflected folk guitarist. I used to play guitar for about 8 or 10 hours a day.”

“Nick Drake is like Joe Meek,” I suggested. “More of a cult than generally famous.”

“Everyone wants to be a more famous version of their hero,” said Karl.

“So are you trying to fit musical styles into comedy?” I asked.

Karl Schultz: one of his more understated stage performances

Karl Schultz: one of his more understated stage performances

“I think my thing is just the life I had. Being an only child, moving every three years.”

Karl’s father was a Salvation Army officer and moved location throughout the world every three years.

“Having different voices in different groups,” said Karl. “That’s my thing. Having an assimilative personality where I can change my accent. I’ve had many different accents. Negotiating and reconciling.”

“Fitting into things you don’t naturally fit into?” I asked.

“Trying to make things fit,” suggested Karl. “I’m obsessed with reconciliation. If you have an early life like I had, it can be very confusing, so you try to make sense of it, which might lead you towards philosophy, poetry and so on. What is very attractive about prosodic things is finding disparate meanings but bringing them together, making them work. Something like Matthew Kelly is synesthetic – it is supposed to be.”

“You want everything to be ordered?” I asked.

“No. Not at all.”

“You want everything to be ordered even though your act is surrealism and anarchy?” I tried.

“My act is not anarchic,” said Karl. “It’s surreal in the sense of being unreal. I take ‘surreal’ to mean dreamlike and what I’m really obsessed with is that type of hypnagogia.”

“Hypno-what?” I asked.

Karl Schultz tattoo

Karl’s tattoo – a hypnagogic fantasy of a dodo with flamingo’s wings and peacock’s feathers

Hypnagogia,” Karl explained, “is that state between wakefulness and being asleep where, as a child, you can just as easily be talking to your mother as a figure in a dream.”

“And,” I suggested, “you can know you’re dreaming yet think it might be real?”

“Yes. It’s a bizarre state. You only have to read anything Oliver Sacks has ever written about memory to know that you can appropriate memories, which is terrifying.”

“I remember,” I said, “being in a pram in Campbeltown where I was born, but I don’t know if I really remember it or if it’s something my mother told me about.”

“Everything for me,” said Karl, “is like a palette where you just play out ideas and let them run.

“What I’m obsessed with at the moment is neurophilosophy and the idea that, since the advent of cognitive science, our understanding of consciousness has moved on and so the language – the lexicon of philosophy – should catch up. What we know has moved on, but our language hasn’t. I think that’s exactly the same with comedy. It feels like we’re using Saxon language. We end up inventing words like dramady which is horrible.”

“What did you study at university?” I asked.

“Philosophy, but I was a real philosophy student in that I was a drop-out. I went off to become a comedian aged 20.”

“At least you didn’t study comedy,” I said. “I get twitchy when people think they can learn comedy.”

“Someone who’s a writer,” said Karl, “told me the other day: I knew more about writing before I started. Getting a degree in maths means that you are just as aware of how much you don’t know – and that’s the real education.

“When I came into comedy, I thought someone was going to go: Well done. Go to Level 2. I thought there were hierarchies and pyramids. But then you realise: Oh! It’s just a common room! You end up meeting the producers and commissioners and you can either have a really nice time with them or think they are milquetoast.”

“Milk toast?” I asked.

“Milquetoast. A bit cowardly. Not willing to take risks… But someone explained to me that is almost written into their job description.”

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My view of life was inspired by the film Lawrence of Arabia and by Rameses II

Yesterday, I posted my blog very late.

Today, I am posting it fairly early, to get it out of the way.

I have still not transcribed the troublesome blog chat. Well, in truth, I have two-and-a-half yet-to-be-transcribed long chats for potential blogs. This one is simpler.

Someone asked me a while back if I had a visual simile for life. They must have been on drink, drugs or recently joined some obscure cult. No-one asks that sort of question. But this person did.

I may have mentioned this visual simile in a blog before. If so, I have forgotten. My memory is notoriously shit.

Omar Sharif appears, as if in a mirage in Lawrence of Arabia

Omar Sharif appears, as if in a mirage, in Lawrence of Arabia

There is a famous scene in David Lean’s movie of Lawrence of Arabia – the first appearance of Omar Sharif. My visual simile is different… but imagine you are alone and dehydrated in a desert. You have been there for day upon dry, searingly hot day. There is no water for hundreds of miles in all directions. You are going to die from lack of water.

Then, with the heat haze rising and distorting straight lines, you see a shimmer on the horizon, like a mirage. As the minutes go by, the shimmer becomes an abstract, moving shape. After more minutes, it becomes a shimmering, fluid single shape and, as it approaches closer, you can see it is the mirage of a man on a camel.

Except it is not a mirage.

As the shimmering image approaches, it starts to solidify into a real shape. It really is a man riding slowly towards you on a camel. And, as he comes closer, you can see he carries a water bottle on the side of his camel. In fact, there are several water bottles.

The man and the camel come closer until, eventually, they reach you.

And they pass you by. The man does not even look at you.

And then the man and the camel get smaller and smaller as they move away, until their sharp outline starts to disintegrate in the heat rising from the ground. The shimmering, fluid shape slowly breaks apart like black mercury blobs separating until they become abstract, moving, shimmering shapes and they merge into the horizon until they disappear completely and until nothing is left except the horizon itself, distorting in the heat haze.

That is my visual simile for life.

It is probably influenced not just by Lawrence of Arabia but by Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, much quoted by the pretentious:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

My much-used photograph of me standing on Blackford Hill (photograph by ME-U-NF)

A legless photograph of me atop Blackford Hill in Edinburgh (photograph by M-E-U-N-F)

I go up to the Edinburgh Fringe every August and, at least once in that month, I try to walk up the Blackford Hill in the south west of the city for a bit of tranquility and to see the view – the castle rock (the plug of a onetime Ice Age volcano) rising up to the left and Arthur’s Seat (another onetime volcano) rising up to the right. Behind them, especially at dusk, with the lights of the city starting to come on, you can see the Firth of Forth glittering beyond and I imagine what that view might be like centuries and millennia from now. Standing on an island, looking at the small island on the left with the castle on top of it and, to the right, the bigger island of Arthur’s Seat, separated by the expanse of water beneath which lie the streets of the old town of Edinburgh.

You can look on the face of Ozymandias at Abu Simbel

Look on the face of Ozymandias at Abu Simbel

Apparently Shelley wrote his poem Ozymandias in competition with his friend the stockbroker and political writer Horace Smith. For their poetry-writing competition, they chose to elaborate on a passage written by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, which described a massive Egyptian statue and quoted its inscription: “King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.”

Ozymandias is the Greek name for Rameses II

The real Ozymandias/Rameses, King of Kings

The real, dead,  Ozymandias, King of Kings aka Rameses II

Horace Smith’s poem is less well-known than Shelley’s Ozymandias – possibly because it is not as good or possibly because his was titled On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below. But it has an interestingly different ending. It reads:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

So there you have today’s blog.

A little bit of pretentiousness, some poetry and a few photos.

It is a bit short on laughs, but you can’t have everything.

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