PR, lateral thinking, political porn and Channel 5 TV’s new Tractor World…

A tractor attracter…

Even if you are on painkillers and muscle relaxant drugs for a sore spine/hip/leg/ankle… when you get an email from an unknown person called Xander with the heading TRACTORS: BIG, BIGGER, BIGGEST – as I did three days ago – you tend to open it immediately.

Tractors are currently amusingly sexy in the UK because, a couple of weeks ago, MP Neil Parish had to resign after he was ‘outed’ for watching porn on his mobile phone in the House of Commons chamber. He said he had been looking at a tractor website and, accidentally, he had then found himself watching a porn site.

The email I got was a PR pitch plugging a new Channel 5 series (starting tonight) called Tractor World

Increasingly prestigious as my blog may be, I am surely not the first choice for publicising a TV farming series about tractors.

I thought: Either this is a wild mistake or it is an admirable piece of lateral thinking – Because of the Neil Parish MP link, you might as well pitch a tractor story to what is sometimes called a comedy blog.

So I asked Xander (Alexander Ross), co-founder of Percy & Warren – a PR agency specialising in the film, TV & entertainment industry – why he had sent me the email…


Xander and I talked about tractor PR via WhatsApp…

JOHN: Why did you contact me?

XANDER: We go to databases to put together relevant lists of people and you filtered through on Comedy and TV. 

JOHN: You contacted me, presumably, because of the Neil Parish tractor porn story.

XANDER: Yeah, we were chatting about Tractor World and thinking maybe we could do a slide show of people and tractors with a romantic Barry White song over the top of it. That might be a little too on-the-nose, but quite fun. You’ve got to jump on an opportunity when it presents itself and it just so happens now that a documentary series on tractors is coming out like a couple of weeks after the MP story.

JOHN: The producers, RawCut Television, didn’t mind you being lighthearted about their serious documentary series?

XANDER: We spoke about it and they wanted something that could make them laugh as well. It was actually a hard brief, but…

JOHN: A hard brief?

XANDER: Well, it’s a lot harder to make somebody laugh than it is to make them cringe.

A lot of the (serious) shows that come out on Channel 5 have got that sort of popular edge to them:. You take something that’s not about the London metropolitan elite or whatever but is for a more dispersed crowd – not your office worker living in the suburbs of London.

Actually, Tractor World HAS been quite a fun one to work on. If you get something like Star Wars or whatever, you’re turning down opportunities of coverage whereas, with something like this, you have to find a way to publicise it that is a little bit different or maybe even a little bit tongue-in-cheek.

For Channel 4, we do Devon and Cornwall, which has been a huge ratings success for the channel. It’s massively popular: a wholesome, kindhearted sort of programme.

JOHN: I know nothing about agriculture or tractors or muck-spreading techniques. Why should I watch a TV series about tractors?

XANDER: If you like things like Clarkson’s Farm and you’re interested in finding out about other lifestyle worlds… Good documentaries are the ones that make you interested about something in which you have no expertise. So, if you can find something that’s nice and warmhearted and has a bit of fun to it, I think you’re onto a good bet with that.

Tractors – always a sexy subject…

JOHN: I once stumbled on a BBC documentary series about the history of British motorway service stations. I have no idea how it got commissioned, but it was fascinating. It was amazing. Who knows? Maybe, in advertiser talk, tractors are now ‘sexy’ too… A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian was a bestselling book only a few years ago.

XANDER: As I say, we’re working on Devon and Cornwall at the moment. We’ve also been working recently on The Great Big Tiny Design Challenge with Sandi Toksvig – another Channel 4 show. It’s about making miniature houses and stuff like that. Shows like The Great British Bake Off do very well at the moment. People like nice and warmhearted and a bit of fun.

JOHN: Your company mostly does glamorous media-type things – a master class with film producer Jeremy Thomas, the return of BBC Three to terrestrial TV…

XANDER: Yes. We were born out of the pandemic in July 2020. We were a company that sprang out of another company – Franklin Rae PR – that expanded into loads of different areas.

They had been a film and TV specialist for about 20-odd years and had moved into architecture, financial technology and stuff like that. I was heading up the (media) division, but when we were pitching for new business, people would say we were too generalist.

So we asked the CEO if we could spin it off into a separate company. We did that in July 2020 and we’ve just gone from strength to strength, very much with an international outlook… Clients in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Canada, the US; done stuff in Brazil; done a little bit with Japan, although Japan can take a lot longer than other countries.

JOHN: Why?

XANDER: Just that decisions are taken a lot more slowly. You get moved through hierarchies. You have to establish trust with one person, then move on to establish trust with the next person. Eventually you reach the decision-maker and then they decide Yes or No. It just takes a longer time to go through all those networks, but it’s worth it.

JOHN: What’s the most bizarre and interesting account you’ve worked on?

XANDER: I worked on a show a few years back called The Penis Extension Clinic

JOHN: Who did you approach to get PR for that?

XANDER: Oh, you go straight to the tabloids for that sort of stuff.

JOHN: Presumably for Tractor World, you have been going for the agricultural community.

XANDER: Yes, Farming Life and so on. Agribusiness. It’s in Farmers World today, but it’s also in the Daily Telegraph.

JOHN: What’s the Telegraph’s angle?

XANDER: They’ve said it’s something for Neil Parish to watch.

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Two painful dreams but no surrealism

In a recent, rather self-indulgent blog, I lamented the fact that I don’t have surreal dreams. Mine are relentlessly and disappointingly realistic.

For almost all my life up until I went into hospital in 2020, I only very very rarely was aware of any dreams. I think this was because I went very quickly into deep sleep, then woke up very slowly in the morning.

I only remembered dreams – and only very rarely – if I was suddenly woken up from a very deep sleep and happened to be in mid-dream.

For the last couple of years, I have been waking up throughout the night. I go to sleep, wake up after two hours dehydrated in my mouth, drink some water, go back to sleep… then wake up dehydrated in my mouth every hour throughout the night. So I think I never really go into a deep sleep.

Last night, I was in a lot of searing pain – at the base of the spine, in my left hip and down the outside of my left leg. But I did manage to get fairly long patches of sleep which meant that, when I woke up, for the first time in a couple of months or so I actually remembered my dreams.

Last night, there were two narrative dreams coming and going throughout the night.

In one, I drove to a small, isolated English village in the middle of nowhere up a narrow back lane, where they were celebrating some sort of pagan festival. Not in any Hammer Horror way…  just because it was a tradition in their village.

They were generally very amiable people though a shopkeeper ignored me when I was trying to pay six pence for a giant Aero chocolate bar. He kept interacting instead with sundry people connected with the set-up of the pagan festival.

I had arrived at the small village in a bright red Toyota Corolla car I used to own. It was a very vivid red in my dream whereas all the other colours – of the people, the village, the vegetation, the sky – everything – were muted, dull browns and greens and greys etc. It looked as if it was dusk the whole time in the village; but the Toyota was bright red.

In the other dream, I was finishing up at work in some large hall and a group of four men dressed in blue came in and started performing their variety act which involved leaping about, singing, dancing and generally trying to be visual and entertaining.

They just arrived unannounced and were auditioning for me on their own whim. I had never seen them before. They were auditioning for some TV show. They didn’t announce themselves when they arrived and, when they finished, they just left without talking to me.

Later, they came back and there were more of them – about seven or eight – men and women – and I was suggesting to them that the act possibly wouldn’t work on television because sometimes acts which work well live (and are therefore viewed in 3D) don’t work in 2D on a TV screen. 

They took it all very well, it seemed.

Both the village dream and the variety act dream progressed in chronological narrative chunks throughout the night. 

I would be having the dream, wake up, go back to sleep and the dream would carry on narratively progressing.

So at least I am again having dreams which I remember, which must mean I am getting into deeper sleep which is welcome, though I could do without the pain.

Sadly, I am still not getting any truly surreal dreams; they are all relentlessly realistic – very physically and visually detailed.

Like many dreams, this blog has no satisfactory ending.

Life is a bitch.

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Amazon’s Alexa is a psychopathic killer. Apple’s Siri is a New Age Californian…

A few weeks ago, I was in a charity shop with my eternally-un-named friend. 

A glass head was being used to display headwear.

I took a liking to it as a slightly surreal objet bizarre.

I asked the shop assistant if it was for sale.

He said, “No.”

Unknown to me, my eternally-un-named friend later found a similar glass head online and bought it for me.

She very kindly gave it to me the other day. 

I was a bit uncertain where to put it in my living room for the maximum aesthetic impact of its pointless splendour and, on a whim, asked my seldom-used Alexa electronic assistant: 

“Alexa, where should I put the head?”

This was the answer I got:

“Place the head in the freezer…”

Afterwards, I asked the same question to Apple’s arguably more sophisticated Siri assistant: 

“Hey, Siri, where should I put the head?”

“I’m not sure I understand,” was her first response.

But, when I asked again:

“Hey, Siri, where should I put the head?”

… she had second thoughts.

And her answer, as befits Apple’s more caring Californian image, included a suggestion of the “Best direction to sleep, according to Feng Shui and Vastu Shastra.”

Eventually, I decided by myself, without electronic advice.

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Is London’s uniquely decorated comedy venue – The Poodle Club – barking?

Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) was a physician recognised as a founder of clinical medicine and epidemiology who discovered Sydenham’s Chorea aka St Vitus Dance

What did he suggest caused illnesses?  Humoural imbalance.

South East London’s Sydenham area is named after him and humour has been restored there, at least.

(That is an example of why I am not a comedian.)

Betsy, the club’s meeter-and-greeter…

The Poodle Club has re-opened for comedy in Sydenham. The club first opened in 2017 but, of course, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, had to close in 2020. 

It’s run by indefatigable dog-lover Karen O Novak and her husband Darren Ball.

Unusually for UK comedy clubs, it’s not just some room in a pub; they own the lease and it was purpose-built as a comedy venue.

“Why call it The Poodle Club?” I asked Karen.

“Betsy, of course,” she told me.

Betsy is a tiny poodle: a very enthusiastic and much-loved meeter-and-greeter of audiences at the club.  

My last blog was a chat with stand-up performer David Mills backstage at the sold-out grand post-pandemic re-opening of The Poodle Club.

In it, I used the word “unique” about the club. Because it is.

Karen O Novak and David Mills back in 2014

You can choose to share a toilet with Liberace…

The revitalised post-pandemic Poodle Club has a new state-of-the-art ventilation system which delivers 500 litres of fresh air per second.

It also aims to have an equal number of male and female comedians and to promote LGBTQ+ and non-white comics in order, says Karen, “to raise up voices that are sometimes lost in the traditionally straight, male-dominated comedy scene”.

The policy, she claims, has drawn an audience that is 70% female.

The club’s decor – like Betsy the Poodle – shows signs of quirky character.

…or visit Bloo Hawaii in the other poodle loo

There are two unisex toilets in the club: one lavishly decorated as a tribute to Liberace and one equally lavishly dedicated to Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii

Despite being clearly marked as unisex, Darren tells me that, overwhelmingly – and for no known reason – men tend to go into the Liberace WC and women into the Elvis WC.

The audiences on the sold-out opening weekend came into the club beaming with joy – partly because of the warm welcome from Betsy, partly because of the club-wide OTT decor which greeted them and partly, I imagine, just because they were able to go to local comedy again.

There’s a plethora of poodle ornaments and ‘kooky’ knick-knacks crowding behind the bar…

“How,” I asked Karen, “did the good people of Sydenham react during the club’s pandemic closure?”

“There were,” she told me, “non-stop emails, weeping, people throwing themselves under buses.”

“Normal for Sydenham, then,” I said. “Has Betsy greeted audiences since the start in 2017?”

Poodle pooches are all over the place in this lovingly-decorated oasis of the comedy arts…

“Before Betsy,” said Karen, “there was Snoopadoo. She used to hold court here at the bar, but she was an elderly lady poodle and passed away at 19 years old.”

“Were Betsy and Snoopadoo related?”

“Sadly no.”

The poodle obsession runs deep, though. In the backstage dressing room, even the signs on the wall board are held up with little pink poodle pins.

The club has performances every Friday and Saturday – during most other days it lies fallow.

But, ever-enterprising, Karen and Darren are running the First Annual ‘Sydenham Comedy Festival’ at the Poodle Club for a whole week this year – 10th-18th June.

The Festival will feature 20 one-hour shows – a series of Edinburgh Fringe previews by the likes of Arthur Smith, Paul Foot, Tony Law and Shazia Mirza..

The Poodle Club in Sydenham is far from Barking…

Like I said, I’m no comedian, but I know what I like.

I like originality. And The Poodle Club certainly has that.

The never-less-than-extravagantly costumed Ada Campe performing on stage at The Poodle Club

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David Mills on the difference between US and UK comedy clubs… and more…

Every week, British-based US-born comedian David Mills posts online an extraordinary 5-point bulletin called Quality Timea smörgåsbord of societal snippets, curated curious comment and interesting insights.

This week, in issue 67, there are items on the Mexican rodeo tradition, US abortion laws, personal advice from the founding executive editor of Wired magazineunforgettable movie trailers and a suspected Basque Country serial killer of gay men who is still on the loose…

We had a chat backstage when I went to the grand re-opening of South London’s unique comedy venue The Poodle Club. David was headlining the opening night, of course.


JOHN: How would you describe Quality Time?

DAVID: It’s a column, really. It’s a window onto the world. Culture & commentary.

JOHN: Very you…You were born in LA?

DAVID: No, it’s where the family ended-up in the 1980s and 1990s. I was born in New Jersey, grew up in Pennsylvania and we travelled over to California when I was about 18. My family’s now in Northern California and Oregan.

JOHN: Recently, you’ve started performing in the UK AND in the US. Are the audience tastes different?

DAVID: Yes. What I’ve found, going back to LA and gigging is that a lot of comics out there are really great on stage and they’re really warm and they have tons of charisma, but they have none of the craft that you need to play comedy rooms in the UK.

JOHN: So what do you need in the UK?

DAVID: You need jokes. You need callbacks. It needs to be quick fire. You need to keep them laughing. In the US – at least in California – I think it’s very different in New York – they are happy to just have a charming host. Someone like a party host and maybe a joke comes and maybe it doesn’t.

David at the Underbelly’s Thames-side South Bank Festival in London, 2019

When you get UK acts like me or Brett Goldstein who go over there and… joke, joke, joke, joke… they don’t know what they’re even looking at but they LOVE it.

I was over there for two months at the end of last year and the beginning of this and I thought: There’s lots of opportunity here for UK acts and for me. And they’re also looking at me because I’m American but I’m not American. So I’m sort-of this interesting thing to them.

JOHN: And yet you are one of them…

DAVID: Yes. I AM ‘one of them’. It’s good to go back. It’s nice to be around. It’s always nice to come home, isn’t it? Look at James Cordon. He’s coming home to the UK.

JOHN: Indeed. So that means there’s an empty space for a late night chat show host in the US. Perhaps a culturally-diverse person like you? They’ve had James Cordon and Craig Ferguson and Trevor Noah – all non-Americans. You are an American but, in a way you are not an American. So you…

DAVID: No. What they want is a woman. And there should be a woman. There is no woman on the late-night chat shows. Well, Joan Rivers did it. Samantha Bee does it. Others have done it, but they’ve never lasted.

What’s interesting is that James Cordon is going AND Ellen DeGeneres  is going. Ellen is daytime and Cordon is evening. Ellen’s been doing it for 19 years. Cordon was tipped to replace Ellen but it seems he’s coming back to the UK.

JOHN: So they have two spots open and they want someone sophisticated who…

Multi-cultural David at the Bar Chez Georges, Saint-Germain in Paris, 2020

DAVID: I don’t know that they want ‘sophisticated’, but they want someone who can really connect with the audience. And that’s what you see on stage in LA. All these acts really connect with audiences. They’re not looking to be stand-up comics. They’re mostly looking to be actors or TV presenters or whatever – and they just want to get exposure.

They don’t need to be joke-joke-joke good comics. They do need to be charming and dynamite and look great and be friendly and likeable. And then they get picked up from that and thrown into something like an Ellen spot.

JOHN: But you’re an actor too. You were in Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. When are you going to be in another feature film?

DAVID: Well, there’s a small film I did – a small part – which I filmed last July in Glasgow.

JOHN: A small film called?

DAVID: Indiana Jones 5.

JOHN: And Glasgow is Gotham City?

DAVID: Yes. Glasgow is New York. Whenever they want to do New York in the UK, they do it in Glasgow.

JOHN: Might you go back to the US more full-time? Like 10 months a year?

DAVID: Who knows?

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Facebook attacks the long-established UK tradition of a ‘banger-up-the-bum’

It seems to have taken six months for Facebook to decide that sticking a banger up your bum is unacceptable. This message arrived just before 07.00am this morning (UK time). Bad news for fans of football and Chris Lynam…

The above was posted in a members-only Facebook group for fans of the late comedian Malcolm Hardee.

I think the picture of England football fans in Leicester Square during the Euro 2020 Championsip was taken from the UK newspaper Metro – owned by Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail – or possibly from the BBC News website, though I can’t quite remember. It was also published online by the Daily Mail itself.

I can’t help but feel this frown from Facebook demonstrates a cultural gap between UK (possibly European) and US sensibilities. Sticking a banger-up-your-bum is a commendably British tradition which started in the 1980s – 40 years ago.

Comedian Malcolm Hardee, in his 1996 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, tells how the revered banger-up-the-bum routine originated…


One of the most popular acts with any Tunnel audience that enjoyed General De Gaulle was Chris Lynam, who had been so kind to me when Pip was ill.

He was in The Greatest Show on Legs at one point and we were all sitting round saying:

“How can we follow The Balloon Dance? We’re all naked. What can we do? We just have to walk off stage. There’s no way to finish it!”

“Well,” I said, “You might as well stick a banger up your arse!”

“Good idea!” Chris said: “You do it!”

So I was the first one to do it. But I only did it once.

You don’t actually stick the banger up your arse, you just clench it between your buttocks, then light it. I didn’t have the necessary muscle-control. It drooped a bit and set light to the hairs on my testicles. I said to Chris:

“You’d better do it”.

So now the finish to his act involves putting a firework up his bottom, then an extravagant version of There’s No Business Like Show Business starts playing on loudspeakers, the firework is lit, goes off and he exits the stage trailing glorious sparks. Sometimes it’s a three-stage Roman Candle shooting forth increasingly spectacular jets of silver sparkles. Good finish. Difficult to follow.

The first year he did it in Edinburgh, we were playing a little pub called The Comedy Boom. It wasn’t very big, but we got the Banger Up The Bum routine passed by a Fire Officer called Maurice Gibb. That’s his real name. It just is. We did the routine the first night then the landlord said he wouldn’t let us do it again. He said:

“You’re not doing that in my pub!”

I said we’d compromise. At the end of our show, we’d take the audience outside and do it in the street. So we did that the second night and it wasn’t just the audience from the show who were there: it drew a bit of a crowd. The landlord said:

“No! You’re not doing that again. It’s bringing my pub into disrepute!”

So we had to video the routine and show the audience the video and it wasn’t the same.

On the last night of our run, I decided we’d do it again for real. We’d been paid already, so fuck the landlord. I was sick of it. We’d had other rows about our act – obviously.

So Chris Lynam bought an extra-large firework.

That night – banger in the bottom – light it – No Business Like Show Business – and it set the pub alight. Just the wall. A bit of plaster. It wasn’t much damage. But some people…. moan, moan, moan.

The next year, The Greatest Show on Legs played The Assembly Rooms, the big, prestige venue at the Edinburgh Fringe. Same thing again. The Fire Officer passed it. First night went without a hitch. Lovely. On the second night, for some reason, it set off all the fire alarms in The Assembly Rooms and they had to evacuate the entire building – about 3,000 people had to evacuate, including our audience and some Russians who were doing a four-hour play and only had three minutes left to go.

We were all standing around outside The Assembly Rooms – a motley crew – when the fire engines turned up with Maurice Gibb. He was there, ready with the hose. Then he saw me naked, saw Chris Lynam, and said:

“Banger up the bum?”.

“Yes,” I said.

“Hoses away, lads!” he said.

And off they went.

The Russians – fair play to them – went back upstairs and did the last three minutes of their play.


YouTube has a clip of Chris Lynam’s routine, as shown nationally on France’s Got Talent in 2014…

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A bit of a chat with Robert Wringham – Part 2 – Comedy, characters, dreams…

Robert Wringham is not his real name…

Yesterday’s blog finished with:

ROBERT: So, when I moved to Scotland, I thought: I’m taking that name! It’s sort of similar to mine and the thing about that book is it’s about doppelgängers. So I thought: My persona is going to be my evil twin. He’s going to do the stuff that I don’t do in real life.

Now read on…


JOHN: I am not in any way a performer. No talent; no interest in doing it. There is a different mindset between performers and writers, isn’t there? I’m not remotely a performer. I can’t ad-lib fluently in spoken speech, whereas I can write I think fluently quite quickly.

ROBERT: I don’t want to be truly me performing on stage; I want to be a character. I think I can just about hold my own in terms of fast thoughts, but what I can’t do is play the character at the same time. However, in Stern Plastic Owl and my other books, I think I CAN do that.

JOHN: So, when you were a stand-up, it was character comedy…

ROBERT: Not like Alan Partridge. It’s like what I said about ‘Robert Wringham’ and the doppelgänger. I want this clear line between the real me and what I’m showing, otherwise it’s not actually a creative act. I don’t want to go out there and just talk. I want to have a character and that was why I was not very good as a performer. I couldn’t really do that.

The way I’ve found round that problem is to do these books. 

JOHN: By and large, I don’t like character comedy because, in television, I got typed as a finder of bizarre and/or eccentric ‘real people’. So I know there are loads of eccentric or even just slightly unusual people out there – well, most people are slightly unusual – and they are really interesting. So why should I watch someone pretending to be eccentric or unusual when they are not? – They are just analysing someone who isn’t themselves and fabricating a character to hide behind.

Charlie Chuck is not a subtle character study of a real type…

The closer a character act is to being real, the less I’m interested. The more ‘cartoony’ they are, the more I’m interested. Charlie Chuck springs to mind. Charlie Chuck (real name Dave Kear) is not a subtle character study of a real type of person.

ROBERT: One of my favourite comics is Harry Hill (real name Matthew Hall) and a lot of people don’t really think of him as a character comic although he is. You could not be like that in real life. I assume Matthew Hall at home is going to be nothing like Harry Hill.

JOHN: Yes, he’s a cartoon character – in a good way. I think really good straight stand-up comedians on stage are themselves, but slightly heightened versions of themselves. And then there are the OTT cartoony-type ones. But stand-up ‘character comedy’ tends to be just wannabe actors showing off their abilities, not performers who inherently have that odd ‘comedian’ gene.

I also don’t particularly like slow-speaking comedians. If I pay to see Jerry Sadowitz, I’m getting value for money in the words-per-minute, but slow comedians, by-and-large, I think: Just get on with it! I never liked Jack Benny. Too slow. Although, oddly, I liked George Burns.

ROBERT: To me, ‘slow’ is the ultimate cool because it’s the opposite of… When you’re nervous on stage, you go fast. A slow-speaking comedian instills a certain confidence in the room. You think: Oh! This guy knows what he’s doing! He’s going to slowly reveal the routine. It’s also very funny: almost as if they don’t care what the audience thinks.

JOHN: I guess maybe George Burns felt more Jewish to me, which I like. Jack Benny was maybe less ‘American Jewish’ humour.

ROBERT: My partner is Jewish and Jewish is a big part of our shared life. In my secret mind, ‘Robert Wringham’ is Jewish, though I don’t tend to talk about it on the page. My favourite humorists are all Jewish. 

JOHN: S.J. Perelman?

ROBERT: Yeah. Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz, Jon Ronson.

JOHN: So what’s next for you after Stern Plastic Owl?

ROBERT: I’m working on my novel. It’s almost done.

JOHN: Tell me it really IS about sitting in a bathtub and it’s called Rub-a-Dub-Dub

ROBERT: Yes! It is!

JOHN: A lucky guess on my part. What’s the plot?

ROBERT: I think ‘plot’ is old hat. So, instead of going wide with a plot, go deep. It’s about the conscious state you have when you’re in the bath. You’re nostalgic. You’re thinking back. There’s this time machine effect. You’re thinking back to you childhood. So that’s what my guy in the book does. He’s remembering things, thinking of his worries, thinking on his body. There’s a lot of stuff about the body in it.

There is something called phenomenological writing, which is just the real nitty-gritty of what surrounds you. You’d be surprised how you can make that interesting.

JOHN: As I speak to you, I am looking at a squeezy pink double decker bus standing in front of a painting of a nun sitting in front of a station/cathedral. What is phenomenological writing?

“I am looking at a squeezy pink double decker bus standing in front of a painting of a nun…”

ROBERT: It’s really old. It’s a French thing. For example, Georges Perec did one where it was all in one building, but it was into the nitty-gritties. So he’d be talking about the design on the carpet for ages and going into the shagpile of this single room or the individual books in the bookcase and what they were. And it would all be in the service of something: like This is the character of the person who lives there. But it would be really deep into the nitty-gritty.

You would think: That can’t possibly be fun to read. But, actually, it’s really entertaining and interesting. What I’m doing and what Georges Perec did is playing it for laughs.

JOHN: I remember reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch and wondering why she went into such detailed descriptions of people’s houses… until I realised the descriptions were actually also descriptions of each householder’s personality. The houses personified their occupants. 

This blog bit is just pure self-indulgence…

You were talking about dreams earlier on. I’m interested because I have an unidentified medical problem. I used to sleep soundly and deeply and never remembered my dreams. But now I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since June 2020 – I wake up literally every hour and, of course, sometimes I wake up in the middle of a dream. I always wanted to remember my dreams because I assumed they would be surreal but they’re not. The dreams I have are very realistic not surrealistic. They have narrative storylines running through them. I am disappointed. You sound like you have better dreams.  

ROBERT: Mine aren’t stories at all. If I do something very repetitive during the day – like doing the washing-up – that’ll end up in my dream. Repetitive things go in. Embarrassingly dull.

JOHN: I don’t seem to have nightmares. Do you?

ROBERT: No. And, if I do write things down in my notebook, it’s always things like Stern Plastic Owl. I DID once write down Stoat: Hospital with a colon between the two words. I can’t even begin to imagine what that means. 

JOHN: I can only dream of having dreams which are that weird.

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A bit of a chat with Robert Wringham – Part 1 – The Stern Plastic Owl man…

Robert Wringham describes himself as a ‘humorist’… His latest book is 2021’s Stern Plastic Owl.

His first book, in 2012, was You Are Nothing (about Simon Munnery, Stewart Lee et al’s comedy show Cluub Zarathustra).

After that, he wrote A Loose Egg (2014), which was shortlisted for Canada’s 2015 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.

His 2016 book Escape Everything! was a spin-off from the New Escapologist, a lifestyle magazine he edited and published 2007-2017 and which continues as a series of online essays. New Escapologist describes itself as “the journal of the art of getting out of things” and suggests that “work has too central a position in Western life”.

Escape Everything! was successful enough to be translated into German and released in Germany, Austria and Switzerland as Ich Bin Raus and then, in 2018, in South Korea as [] 탈출하라. No doubt to further confuse readers, it was also republished in the UK in 2021 in English as I’m Out: How To Make an Exit.

Meanwhile, in 2020, in English, Robert had written The Good Life For Wage Slaves, which was re-published in Germany as Das gute Leben.

He had also written a regular column 2016-2020 in The Idler, a magazine whose declared aim is to “return dignity to the art of loafing” and had written for a variety of other esteemed outlets including Meat, The Skinny, the British Comedy Guide, Playboy etc etc etc.

Obviously, I had to have a chat with Robert.

It would have been churlish not to.

He lives in Glasgow and Montreal (his partner is Canadian), so we talked via FaceTime.


JOHN: You have said: “The highest form of human activity is the shenanigan”…

ROBERT: It makes sense, right? What could be better than a mischievous, spontaneous act?

JOHN: ARE you a mischievous, spontaneous act?

ROBERT: That’s what I aspire to.

JOHN: You describe yourself ‘a humorist’.

ROBERT: There’s a thing on Wikipedia at the moment about the definition of ‘humorist’ which says it’s “an intellectual who uses comedy to get his or her point across”. And that nails it for me. I don’t want to think of myself as an intellectual, but I do like the idea that I’m trying to communicate a ‘point’ packaged nicely with humour, so you can get inside somebody. It’s the sugar pill, right?

“I think it’s to do with anti-pigeon…”

JOHN: Why is your latest book called Stern Plastic Owl?

ROBERT: That’s a theme. My previous similar miscellany book was called A Loose Egg because I got hung up on that phase “a loose egg”. It came about by accident, because there was a loose egg in our fridge back in Canada.

Stern Plastic Owl is a random phrase too. Like all comedians and writers, I have a notebook nearby at all times, including by my bed. There is an idea that sleeping should be when your fertile ideas come up although, really, what I write down in the night is gibberish. But it feels like it’s a resource I should use and one of the phrases that stood out was Stern Plastic Owl. I didn’t know what it meant.

So there is a story in the book where I try to work out what it means. It’s kind of a detective story in the middle of the book.

JOHN: So did you find out what it means?

ROBERT: Not exactly. But I think it’s to do with anti-pigeon, do you know what I mean?

JOHN: No.

ROBERT: An anti-pigeon device. You’ve got an owl and you put it up on your roof to scare pigeons away. There’s one nearby and I think I must have seen that and it came back to me in a dream. So I tried my best to write a piece around one of those stern plastic anti-pigeon owls.

JOHN: I’ve never heard of this before. Are you telling me, if I come up to Glasgow there are fake owls on window sills and roofs all over the place.

ROBERT: They’re everywhere.

JOHN: You were a stand-up comic.

“I never got a horrible heckle ever…”

ROBERT: One of the very brief things from my very brief stand-up period was my come-back to hecklers: “Sir, you cannot count the number of cylinders I’m firing on”. I’m still happy with that. I never got to use it, but it was just there on standby. I never got a horrible heckle ever.

JOHN: You were too loveable?

ROBERT: Probably too young. A lot of audiences are just polite if you look very young.

JOHN: Why did you give up stand-up?

ROBERT: My favourite thing was writing the jokes and fine-tuning them. The hardest part was making it sound good, sound spontaneous. I didn’t enjoy the late nights or the Green Room badinage. I have met a lot of wonderful comedians in Green Rooms but I never felt I was holding my own in those conversations.

JOHN: You wrote that one great climb-down of your life was “pointing your imagination in the direction of writing rather than performance”.

ROBERT: Well, that’s not really true. That’s just what I put in the book. It didn’t really feel like a climb-down. I just didn’t want to tell the story in the other direction which was I was travelling in a favourable direction to the thing I wanted to do. I didn’t think there was any comedy in saying that.

JOHN: Is it a book full of lies? Like comedy routines?

ROBERT: Oh completely. The idea of what is true is something that is always on my mind a lot. For example, my real name is not Wringham. My actual passport name is Westwood. Robert Westwood.

 I wanted to change my name and be a persona. So, when I’m on the page or on the stage, it’s a separate thing. 

JOHN: Why Wringham?

Agraman aka The Human Anagram, John Marshall, c2018

ROBERT: I was always entertained by people like The Human Anagram (aka Agraman aka John Marshall) in the 1980s, but I wanted to do something else. I like horror novels and there’s one called The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

 It’s of the age of Frankenstein, but it’s Scottish and I think that’s why no-one has given a shit about it and it’s unjustifiably obscure. The villain in that is called Robert Wringham.

So, when I moved to Scotland, I thought: I’m taking that name! It’s sort of similar to mine and the thing about that book is it’s about doppelgängers. So I thought: My persona is going to be my evil twin. He’s going to do the stuff that I don’t do in real life.

(… CONTINUED HERE … )

Robert’s books have been published in the UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and South Korea

 

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Filed under Books, Humor, Humour, Surreal

I can’t remember things. Is it not-so-early-onset Alzheimers/dementia?

This is not a picture of comedian Joe Lycett.

Oh FFS!

This is a poster for a London gig by comedian Joe Lycett. It features an irrelevant photo of comedian James Acaster. I saw it in Tottenham Court Road tube station maybe a couple of months ago.

I am not convinced it is a particularly good marketing strategy.

I emailed the photo to someone I know last night saying: “I don’t think I sent this to you when I saw it at Tottenham Court Road station the other week…”

I got a reply this morning: “We saw it together”.

Coincidentally (this is true) there was an ex-rugby player on breakfast TV when I read this reply talking about getting early onset dementia… He can’t remember playing in the World Cup a few years ago, which was the highlight of his career.

Fortunately I do remember I always had a rubbish factual memory. So no change there. It’s one reason in school that I was shit at languages and particularly bad at science. I once did not come bottom in Chemistry. Once.

I was good at English (I was interested) and at British Constitution (I could waffle).

I remember keeping a diary on a trip to South East Asia in 1989 and, on returning home and reading it maybe a week later, I had forgotten most of the details – Oh yes! That happened!

My friend Lynn, who has known me for 47 years, says I will live appallingly long because I seldom worry about things which happened in the past; I just accept them, forget them, unless they’re vital, and move on. 

This is mostly true. But I am not sure that is a good thing.

Neither the forgetting nor the living appallingly long.

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Filed under Age, Mental health, Psychology

The oldest man in the world, a mystery moon and the broken Rule of Three…

Tonight I went to see the regular Monday Club show at the Museum of Comedy in London. I had been telling comic Siân Doughty it was an excellent place to see good acts trying out new material. She went to check it out.

Afterwards, she mentioned to me: “There was a report on the radio that the oldest man in the world has died again.”

“Again?” I asked and then realised that, of course, the oldest man in the world is forever dying.

On my train back home, I met a neighbour who told me he had heard a radio programme about exoplanets and had to look up what an exoplanet is. (I didn’t know either.) 

The programme pointed out, he told me, that our Moon has no name.

Loads of other planets have moons, some with names, some without. 

Ours is just another moon – one of gazillions – but it has no specific name. 

I had never thought about this before.

I have a cold, but that is no excuse.

I felt cheated when I got home because I felt a third quirky insight should have been visited on me. The Rule of Three had been broken.

I will sleep uneasily tonight.

Seen this afternoon – rain through my kitchen window pane – I have no point to make…

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Filed under Eccentrics