Now top comedy critic Kate Copstick pukes and shoots poo all night in Kenya

In the previous blog, Kate Copstick’s back was covered in (one presumes) insect bites.

She is currently in Kenya, working for her Mama Biashara charity.

Now read on…

THURSDAY

I don’t know what went wrong but I puke and shoot poo all night and wake up with a blinding headache. There is no water, so the room is far from fragrant. And I can barely move. Just turning over to let the air at my bites is exhausting. I text Doris to say I will be late getting up. She texts back to say her legs are worse. I fall back asleep. And awake, many hours later, no better.

Except Doris is here with her bad legs. She lifts one onto the bed and I can see that there is quite a lot of pus around the bites where she has been scratching. I give her Grabacin ointment and powder and pass out again.

When I awake, she is worse. And her leg is deffo badly infected. We send a boy for penicillin or an equivalent. Always best to give pharmacies here an option of at least three and hope they have one. In 500mg bombs. I pass out again.

When I awake, Doris has the medicine and is pressing me to a large blackcurrant Fanta. The drink of Nazis. The urine of the devil himself. But I drink. Doris says her leg is much better. The heat is going. I say: “Take one more pill tonight.” Then I pass out again.

I awake about three in the morning and try to Google everything from cerebral malaria to dengue fever. But the connection won’t go through.

Doris – having some leg problems in Kenya

FRIDAY

While not exactly feeling like ruling the world, I am much MUCH better. Neither end is a danger to its surroundings, the headache is no longer crippling and I can get up and walk about. Doris says her leg is improving and I check that she took the second antibiotic bomb last night. She did not. She thought I did not know what I was saying. I freak. And do a short impromptu lecture on the propensity of bacterial infections to bounce back, resistant to everything except napalm.

We go out to the City Mall where we are meeting Dennis, The Man From SGR (Standard Gauge Railway).

While the Chinese companies who have been building roads across Kenya (although, so far, not down to Mombasa) have not been helpful to the locals in that they have brought a lot of their own workers with them, SGR have been using Kenyan labour.

Doris made a connection with a lady called Helen who is Something High Up and, since then, SGR and Mama Biashara have pretty much transformed entire communities.

Hundreds and hundreds of the neediest people are now in great jobs. The men need two hand tools each and one wheelbarrow per ten men. Plus an overall. The women need a couple of cooking utensils and an apron. And they are paid astoundingly well. They are housed, fed and the Chinese even bring a medical clinic around regularly and will give free medication. The people who get the jobs never want to leave.

The Chinese have recently raised the wage to 1,000 a day. Which is more than a teacher makes. Even better, although the first four or five groups of people came from villages near Nairobi, Doris persuaded Helen and Dennis to take the new labour from the poorest villages close to the railway line –  wherever it reached. So this particular project is reaching far further out into the rural areas than Mama Biashara ever has before.

Most recently, the workers are coming from some of the abjectly poor Mijikenda villages in the Coastal area. The transformative effect of this work is quite thrilling. And the SGR company has had its attitude to engaging labour completely turned around.

(The Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway will be inaugurated in Kenya in two days time. There is a New China TV video of it on YouTube.)

There used to be The Bloke In The Office who made people form a line, and, if they were the right tribe (ie his tribe) then they might get a job. But he is being completely circumvented now and all the jobs are filled via Dennis and Mama Biashara. Exciting stuff.

We had worked out an allowance of 600 bob for two hand tools and the same for a decent overall – around £9 in all. And a decent second-hand wheelbarrow is just under £20. Dennis does it for us. No backhander, no commission… He is a bit of a convert to the Mama Biashara way of thinking. And it has resulted in the company getting an incredibly hardworking workforce. And major… er… brownie points for him.

Dennis goes. While we are here, Doris gets a leg massage in one of those big chairs that squish and poke and vibrate you. She is wildly enthusiastic about the effects.

We head to Mtwapa. We want to check how things are there since our chats with the magistrate. We discover that the police have not swooped since we spoke to the magistrates. Which is great. We talk to more girls who most definitely ARE ‘loitering’ and explain the law to them. And how ‘your phone is your friend’ in terms of filming police brutality.

There are various health problems including one girl who has endometriosis. Which must be particularly horrific in her job.

I am wilting a bit and we collect our things to go. Which is when Doris discovers that her Mama Biashara phone has been stolen. This is a little basic Nokia. Cost £15. So it has not been stolen to sell. But it has ALL Doris’s Mama Biashara contacts in it. From years back. This is quite disastrous. And done only out of badness. We are both a bit stunned. The bloke who runs the bar is puzzled. Who? Why?

We get a matatu back to town. It is driven by a man who looks like he has come straight from winning an Evil Uncle Abanazer Lookalike Competition. He has both eyes on the sky. He is driving like he wants to arrive yesterday. I had no idea a matatu could go this fast. He sees the new moon, slams on the brakes, stops the vehicle, grabs a bottle of water, leaps out, goes to the side of the road, kneels down and washes his bits. Happy Ramadan.

He leaps back in and we hurtle on. After one near miss, I murmur: Please take care, I do not want to die here on the road. He bangs the steering wheel and shouts something about Mungu Kubwa (Big God) and something about himself and being fine and 37. For a horrible moment I consider that he is informing me that, while the going rate for the big time jihadis is 52 virgins, there is another verse that says you can still get 37 if you just wipe out a couple of infidels in a matatu crash.

Happily I realise he has been telling me he has been driving like this for 37 years just fine. We still get off a stop early and get a tuk tuk home.

A reminder of Copstick’s back.

SATURDAY

The post-phone-theft gloom remains. Plus I still seem to be amassing red itchy, stingy, lumpy bits. And I cannot help but scratch. I feel at this point we should raise our glasses to Chalky, my on-guard white blood cell. He is doing a sterling job in the face of many challenges. To assuage the agony of the itchiness I have a cold shower. Which is the only kind available. The effect is immediate. Instead of pink puffy skin with angry red bumps and scabs, I now have pale bluey white skin with angry red bumps and scabs. Which is actually more horrifying.

We are going to the South Coast again today but pause to buy a new Nokia for Mama Biashara. And to get Doris another leg massage. It helps massively.

The ferry is rammed and I find myself under a humongous sack of something veggie along with the guy who is actually carrying it. There a chicken (alive) and fish (dead) and carts piled ridiculously high with stuff for the market. I have no idea where Doris is. I have a cardboard carton full of medication for the clinics this afternoon and this evening and, as I shoulder it, I feel I fit right in. Except I am white and my load does not weigh more than twice my own bodyweight.

Doris and I end up at totally different bus stops and, by the time she makes it to mine, I have received two proposals of… well… something of a warm and sticky nature.

The friendliness continues as the makaanga on the matatu offers me a share of his bag of miraa. I take a tiny bunch of the leaves, remove them from the stalk and chew them. They taste like… er… leaves… and are the very mildest of stimulants. You need to chew for about a day before you get any effect.

But I was touched he offered.


Mama Biashara survives solely on donations
and 100% of all donations go to the charity’s work,
none to overheads.

You can donate to Mama Biashara HERE.

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Comedy critic Kate Copstick’s back – bitten in Kenya & banned on Facebook

Copstick’s back in Mombassa, Kenya – as banned by Facebook

Below, more edited extracts from Kate Copstick’s diary. The last ones were three days ago

She is currently in Kenya, where her Mama Biashara charity gives seed money to impoverished people wanting to start self-sustaining businesses. It also gives medical aid and advice to those people whom other charities overlook.

Her last diary extracts were about insect bites, traffic jams and the prostitutes of ‘Ho Central’ in Mombassa.

Yesterday, she posted a photo of her back covered in insect bites on her Facebook page and Facebook immediately blocked it as unsuitable imagery. I would not necessarily dispute this, but have no such qualms about displaying it.

Now read on…


A 50 km traffic jam on the Nairobi-Mombassa road in 2015

TUESDAY

My selfless provision of an all-you-can-eat buffet for the nightlife in my mattress continues. Luckily no one here is remotely interested in my body as I look positively plague ridden. The boss man says he will move me to another room. The tiny mattress inhabitants will be devastated.

The traffic jam still stretches into the distance. Last night the police made a load of lorries turn round and go back to where they came from. So far, one woman has given birth in the jam and one old man has died.

Doris called a lawyer she knows for advice about the goings-on in Ho Central. We were thinking of going to see the Big Boss Policeman. But the lawyer suggested a magistrate at the Shanzu Court who he thinks will be helpful.

So we are in a matatu – me with ginormous mango in plastic bag – going to Shanzu. I am panicking because my fingers are all sticky from the mango and I cannot shake hands with a judge like that. I buy a bottle of water.

We find the judge and we have the most surprising meeting I have had in Kenya.

We explain the horror of the night before. I run through my understanding of the law and the parameters of what the police can legally do. The magistrate is appalled about the brutality we witnessed. She has suspected shit was going down as she has been seeing injured girls coming before her in court. She is very understanding of the girls. She usually sentences them to sweep the courtyard, to go and see a counsellor… she is on our side.

“Society has turned its back on these girls,” she declaims. “They are just doing what they must to feed their children”.

She takes our contacts and makes a list of the people she is going to contact. She has control of several counties and is contacting head police officers, judges and magistrates and the Big Bod himself, police wise. She controls a big committee that oversees a huge area and deals with complaints and procedural hoo-ha. She wants us to come and speak at it.

OK… so our heads are now firmly above the parapet, at least in Mombasa, but in a good cause. I hope the meeting will be soon.

The stifling ferry to Ukunda (photograph from TripAdvisor)

WEDNESDAY

We go back across the ferry to Ukunda to do a meeting with the working girls there. They are also being terrorised and extorted by local police. We have leaflets, information, tea tree douche and metronidazole. We are going to drop the meds with Vicky in Ukunda and make a trip to a market in Lunga Lunga which is the border post with Tanzania. Vicky says there is a huge market there.

I am excited because if I can buy a load of stuff here, the necessity for going back to Nairobi lessens. Mombasa, for all I am in constant, sweaty discomfort with the myriad bites and am mildly, subconsciously worried about the various fevers that abound here, given my lack of white blood cells, is sooooo much more relaxing than Nairobi.

We dice with more heavy metal poisoning on the ferry – passengers and heavy goods vehicles board and stand together for the crossing. And the disembark is quite a smoggy experience.

The country bus to Lunga Lunga is like something from a movie. The door is open as are the windows. None of this Nairobian obsession with pneumonia arriving with every gust of fresh air. The bus is piled high with bundles of flour and things in boxes with airholes punched in the sides, big bundles of water containers and sacks of veggies. It is crammed.

The conductor could not be more helpful. At a place called Ukunda we pass the bags with meds and milk through the window to Vicky and I get a mango from a lady hawker. We are few when the bus pulls into the Lunga Lunga stage. And Doris and I are confused. It appears to be a petrol station of sorts. No town.

Copstick-eye-view of pikipiki trip on road out of Lunga Lunga

We explain to the crush of smiley pikipiki boys about the soco and they all look puzzled. I mention wood carvings and they nod. We board pikipikis. Eight kilometers, they say. Not quite as Vicky described. Eight kilometers down the road and through the Customs post, we are at the Tanzanian border when we turn right and go cross-country.

Finally we arrive at a little collection of tents made from coconut leaves. Good news: there is definitely carving going on. Bad news: there is bugger all else.

Nada. Nothing.

We are firmly steered away from the actual carving by a large man who does not look local. We are shown the duka (the shop). To say it is a disappointment would be like saying The Sun newspaper is frequently, unfortunately worded. We leave. Bouncing cross-country. Back up the eight kilometers to the stage. And back to Ukunda where we have left the medicines and the stuff for Poor Mama’s Plumpy Nut. It is dark when we reach Ukunda.

No girls are around because the police have swooped again and the ones who have not been beaten up/’arrested’ are now in hiding.

So we go on to discuss the Great Lamu Raincatcher Project. A big group of old ladies on Lamu want to put a raincatcher in their village. Water is a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge problem in Lamu. A raincatcher would be perfect.

A Mama Biashara style raincatcher erected earlier this year

OK, I say they wanted a raincatcher. They actually wanted a water tank. But when I explain to Vicky about the raincatcher and show her the pictures from last time in Western, she almost needs a rub down with a wet copy of Water Fancier’s Monthly.

So Lamu gets its first raincatcher with a 3,000 litre tank. We arrange to return tomorrow by which time we hope the girls will be out and about again.

Vicky goes off with 7.5 kg of dried milk and the rest and Doris and I get a matatu back to the ferry and a tuk tuk home.

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Comic performer-turned-painter The Iceman suddenly outsells Van Gogh.

The Artist formerly known as The Iceman: a brush with fame

I have blogged before about the comic performance artist legend that is The Iceman. The last couple of times he has cropped up, it has been as a fine artist (I use the words loosely) not a performance artist. As a stage performer, he has been described as:

“…a living saint” (Stewart Lee)

“…incredible” (Mike Myers)

“A figure of mythic proportions” (Independent)

“inexplicable” (The Stage)

“shit!” (Chris Tarrant)

“brilliant” (Simon Munnery)

“truly a performance artist” (Jo Brand)

AIM’s painting of Jo Brand (left) understanding The Iceman

He sent me an email this morning asking if I wanted to write another blog about him because he feels my blog-writing style has “sort of subtle undercurrents where sarcasm meets genteelness” and, where he is involved, has “a mixture of awe, bafflement and sneaking respect.”

Those are his words.

He added: “I think you should keep it short and pithy. Do you do short blogs? As my sales increase I am going to keep you very busy indeed so, for your own sanity, it should be more like a news flash.”

Eddie Izzard/Iceard (left) upstaged/icestaged by The Iceman

The Iceman – who now prefers to be called AIM (the Artist formally known as the Ice Man) – measures his fine art success against van Gogh’s sales of his art during his lifetime.

He told me that, yesterday, he “nearly tripled/then quadrupled/then quintupled van Gogh’s sales record… but, in the end, I just tripled it as the buyer couldn’t stretch to it…”

‘It’ being an “confidential but significant” sum.

Buyer Maddie Coombe overawed in the presence of the AIM

He sent me photographs of the buyer – “discerning collector” and dramatist Maddie Coombe – who topped an offer by another buyer who desperately tried to muscle-in on the art purchase.

Ms Coombe says: “I bought a very colourful and bold piece of the Iceman’s work. I loved it because of its colour, composition and bold brush strokes. I will keep it forever as a memory of the time I have spent being his colleague – a man unlike any other!”

Comedian Stewart Lee (right) and poet John Dowie carrying The Iceman’s props with pride – a specific and vivid memory.

The Iceman says: “The sale was a formal business agreement born of an authentic appreciation of AIM’s art/oil paintings in a secret contemporary art gallery south of Bath – It’s in a valley.”

Explaining the slight element of mystery involved, he explains: “Being a cult figure I can’t be too transparent with anything,” and adds: “AIM is now painting not from photos but from specific and vivid memories insice the ex-Iceman’s head, resulting in even more icetraordinary imagices.

“One gallery visitor,” he tells me, “was heard to say It looks like it’s painted by a three year old which, of course I thought was a huge compliment.”

AIM’s most recent painting – Stand-up comedian, activist and author Mark Thomas (right) gets the political message of The Iceman’s ice block at the Duke of Wellington’s public house many years ago

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Copstick in Kenya: “They have huge sticks. They have huge guns. AK-47s.”

A couple of days ago, I posted diary extracts from Kate Copstick in Kenya, where her Mama Biashara charity gives seed money to impoverished people wanting to start self-sustaining businesses. It also gives medical aid and advice to those people whom other charities overlook.

These are edited extracts. Fuller versions are posted on Copstick’s Facebook page.


SUNDAY

Kate Copstick working for Mama Biashara charity  in Kenya

I risk electrocution and plug my phone in to charge, close to where the torrential rain is coming through the roof. On the TV is a loud, happy-clappy, interminable church service and from outside comes the more restrained call from many mosques around the city. Around all the Goddy places the terrible, terrible shit goes on.

Doris is in agony with all her bites. I promise we will get bicarbonate of soda and make her less itchy. To be fair, I am horrified to note, I am catching up fast on the unsightly bump front. My back looks like a couple of pounds of mince and my left side feels like the bottom of a football boot. I check the symptoms of Dengue Fever again. The buggering things are like Ninjas here. I have neither seen nor heard one. In Nairobi you at least hear the little bastards. Here – nothing until the lumps and bumps catch fire.

We get a tuk tuk to the ferry and join the sea of people (no pun intended) waiting for the crossing. It is free and fast and unsettlingly efficient for Kenya. We get a matatu and reach Chungwe, our medical location.

The villagers are suspicious at first. None of the people Doris had spoken to have turned up but we soon have a massive crowd. All the de-wormers go, we hand out kids’ cod liver oil and there are loads of coughs and colds, a man with possible malaria, some UTIs, a man who had had bloody poo and was turned away from the hospital because he had no money, a load of rashes and a worrying little girl of two with itching and pain ‘down there’ and diarrhoea.

We are out in the open and there is nowhere private to go. I ask the mother if ‘someone’ might have done ‘something bad’. She looks blank. But she has a husband. And a brother. We are coming back on Tuesday. So I give her stuff for the itching and a mild kaolin mix for the trots and we will see her then, somewhere private.

There is a LOT of malnutrition here. Kids who look like babies turn out to be three years old. So Tuesday will also be about nutrition

MONDAY

Doris, one of Mama Biashara’s key helpers

More torrential rain and a sad sight as I get out of bed to find two humongous cockroaches, apparently dead, lying on their backs on the beautifully clean floor of my room. I hope it is not an omen, as I scratch my ever-increasing number of lumps and bumps. We are meeting Vicky for an update on All Things Coastal.

I need to get some dosh out and finish my research on the law regarding the behaviour of the police in ‘Ho Central’. We are heading back there and I want to have a leaflet for the girls, explaining their rights. Not that the police respect their rights, but it will be a help.

The flooding is quite bad, with the extra frisson that, if the lake on the road has a pothole in it, the water suddenly doubles or triples in depth and you are, well, almost literally up shit creek without a paddle.

We are dropped at the City Mall where we are joined by Vicky. Her update is a delight. The fumigators from last time are ‘fumigating everything’. And now have three groups. Life on Lamu in the poor areas has been ‘transformed’.

People have electricity, they have food and the men are no longer idle. Everyone is doing business. Unfortunately, the men are less keen on sharing the money they have with their wives. So another 60 of the older ladies have asked for funding. Vicky reckons that 20 is the ideal number for a group and so one group wants to sell eggs (hard boiled with kachumbari: they are a phenomenally popular snack), another to make samosas and the third to sell Smokies – a popular sausage sold by the roadside as a snack. The 60 ladies are kicked-off in business for about £350. Hoorah!

The flooding is still crippling transport to and from the island. People drown with monotonous regularity. On the boat Vicky came on, one woman was swept overboard and the fisherman had to save her by casting their fishing net overboard and landing her like a big fish.

We get a tuk tuk out to Mtwapa. It is raining again. We set up and talk to the ladies in ‘our’ bar. They are impressed by the leaflets and by what we are telling them. We go walkabout. The next big group of girls work out of a sort of lodging house. Well, brothel. The girls rent a room and then they are freelance agents. They do not believe what we are telling them. The rain gets heavy. So we go inside the house.

We soon have a big group. And they are excited. We explain about being ready to film whenever the police swoop. Film them in their criminal activities. The women understand about the loitering aspect. But, they tell us, if there is no-one outside, the police just come into their rooms, and demand 3,000 to leave, and this is not even when the girls have a client. We get through to them though. And we are in the middle of arranging a big meeting when there are shrieks from outside.

We rush out. A big jeep has parked there. About ten huge men in army combat gear are dragging girls into it. They have huge sticks the thickness of baseball bats but maybe four feet long. They also have huge guns. AK-47s. It is like a vicious, violent, heavily-armed version of the Childcatcher. It is horrifying to watch and they do it without compunction.

In two months, five sex workers have been murdered. Some of the placards read: SEX WORKERS – DON’T KILL THEM

In the back of the jeep, two of them are laughing. The women are manhandled with appalling ferocity. It is stunningly shocking. I am maybe twenty feet from the jeep, staring open mouthed in horror.

The big guy at the back with the AK-47 just grins at me as they drive off. Doris is devastated.

She is having immediate flashbacks to her own days on the streets. She is genuinely traumatised.

We hand out as many leaflets as we can and talk with one of the girls who escaped the men. Doris and I go back to base and do some handing out of douches and diclofenac gel and Flagyl and advice. We more or less have the matatu back to town to ourselves. And it is so relaxing. Half eleven and all is completely safe.

We get a tuk tuk from town and do not even have to bargain. At midnight in Nairobi any taxi driver would be demanding 2,000 for our trip across the bridge and into the never-ending jam. Our lovely tuk tuk man asked for 350.

I take my ever-increasing collection of pink lumpy bumpy bits to bed and scratch myself to sleep.


… CONTINUED HERE

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Don’t Think Twice – When scripting a movie, a story is not the same as a plot.

Five days; two movie previews; two bizarre starts.

Last week, before a movie preview, comic Richard Gadd persuaded me he was half-Finnish and starred in the film. Neither was true.

Last night in London, I went to a preview of the movie Don’t Think Twice. I had not actually been invited. I was a last-minute stand-in as someone’s +1.

I arrived well before they did, explained to the PR people who I was and who I was with. We got right through to the point where my name badge had been written out, put in its plastic sheath and handed to me when I – for no real reason – asked: “This IS for the Don’t Think Twice preview, isn’t it?

It was not.

It was for a New Statesman talk on Brexit and Trump.

I was tempted to go to that because I actually HAD been invited to that event and had not been invited to the film preview.

But I took the movie title to heart and went to the Don’t Think Twice preview.

It was what used to be called a ‘talker’ screening and is now apparently called an ‘influencer’ screening. In this case, an audience of comics and comedy industry people.

Afterwards, one comedian told me they loved it. Another told me they thought it was awful. Yet another told me that, as long as they remained within the confines of the building, they would say it was very good.

As I wasn’t officially invited to this screening, I feel I can actually be honest about my thoughts.

The story is about a New York improvisational comedy group – they are middling fish in a small pond – all of whom see their next career step as being invited to be one of the regular performers in the TV show Weekend Live (a not-really disguised fictionalisation of Saturday Night Live). The publicity says the movie “tells a nuanced story of friendship, aspiration and the pain and promise of change”. And therein lies the problem.

Well acted, well-directed, well-intended, but only an OK script

Mike Birbiglia is the director/co-star (it is an ensemble piece). He is a comedy performer as are most of the cast. It is shot in a successfully easy-going style. But it falls prey to the problem of a movie created by actors about and for actors.

Actors are interested in building atmosphere, character and relationships.

Which is good.

But that ain’t plot.

The movie tells a story – Which, if any of them will get on the TV show? There is a sub-plot about their live theatre closing and the father of one of the performers is dying. And there is the thought: Will success spoil existing relationships?

But those are stories, not a movie-movie plot.

Clichés are clichés because they tend to be right.

The cliché plot structure is:

  • You start with a major unresolved problem. That is the ‘hook’.
  • The body of the film involves the unravelling of the problem.
  • The problem is resolved at the end of the film.
  • Along the way, the hook is refreshed and additional subsidiary temporary hooks are inserted and resolved while the main plot continues.

A subsidiary ‘rule’ in a movie-movie is breadth of scale and that, ideally, the entire set-up of the movie, the main characters and the hook are established in the first 2-4 minutes. (The best example I have ever seen of this is the original Die Hard movie in which everything is set-up, including an important back-story, under the opening titles.)

Don’t Think Twice starts with sequences which establish the main characters and the general setting but the main hook (the not-quite-strong-enough Saturday Night Live Will-they?/Won’t-they? plot) is brought in far too late.

The film is high on atmosphere and fine on characters. Good.

It has a story.

But not a gripping plot structure.

There is nothing particularly wrong with it as a piece of entertainment. It will probably feel better watched on a TV or computer screen at home rather than in a cinema because it is not a movie-movie. It is a TV movie or (in olden days) a straight-to-DVD movie.

It got some laughs of recognition from the rather industry audience I saw it with. But, at its heart, it is a movie created by performers, about performers and for performers. Average punters Dave and Sue in Essex or Ohio, in South London or East LA have no real reason to be gripped.

‘Story’ is not the same as ‘plot’.

But – Hey! – What do I know? I did not like the multi-5-star-reviewed Finnish film The Other Side of Hope and liked Guy Ritchie’s $175 million mega audience disaster King Arthur.

Don’t Think Twice was shown in the US last year. It opened on one screen in New York City and grossed $92,835 in its opening weekend, the highest per-screen gross of 2016. Rotten Tomatoes currently gives the film an approval rating of 99% based on 111 reviews.

What do I know?

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Very wet Kate Copstick in Kenya – “My exhausted teeth bounce off the meat”

Kate Copstick currently in Kenya, working for Mama Biashara

Last Monday, comedy critic Kate Copstick flew to Kenya, where her Mama Biashara charity is based.

It gives small grants to struggling individuals and small groups to start small self-sustaining businesses.

The charity survives solely on donations. Copstick receives no salary and covers 100% of her own expenses, including flights and accommodation. 

Below are highly edited extracts from her diary, posted in full on her Facebook page.


WEDNESDAY

We head to the wholesale stationers off River Road to get Felista a load of stuff for the school and the cybercafe. But David gets a bit lost, there are roadworks and the traffic is at a standstill. Another hour and a half plus borderline heavy metal poisoning from the appalling toxic fumes around here.

We crawl out of the area, having failed to make the stationery place and go to Eastleigh. I am buying dried milk in bulk for my recipe for Poor Man’s Plumpy Nut. The malnutrition on the Coast is terrible. And when the kids get ‘kwashiokor’ – the big belly protein deficiency – the people frequently turn to witch doctors to cure then. And then they die. I am going to teach them to make a version of plumpy nut – which is basically peanut butter, a little oil, dried milk (for the whey) and a vitamin mix. We are also going to show them how to grow peanuts (a crop ideally suited to the climate there). I get 2.5kilo tins for about £10.50. I buy five tins.

My lungs feel like the filter on a well-used Dyson.

David and I make for Kawangware. Which is more or less a hooting, toxic smog-shrouded, bad-tempered car-park of gridlocked vehicles. David is going to show me a bedsit he thinks would be suitable for me. The lovely hotel in the killzone is absolutely wonderful. But it is £10 a night. Which adds up when you are here for a month.

The bedsit is in a new block. Tiny but sooo clean with electricity on a token and actual running water. It is £80 a month. Location wise it is great. Loads of wee stalls, bars and David lives just down the road. However I am off to Mombasa for at least a week, then back, then Awendo. And I don’t have time to buy a mattress and whatnot. So we agree I will take it next time (or one in the same block) and pay in advance.

THURSDAY

Nakumatt, it turns out, as I wander the half-empty shelves in search of bicarbonate of soda (pretty much a wonder remedy) and castor oil (disgusting but effective), has filed for bankruptcy. This is like Tesco going broke. And follows on after Uchumi went to the wall (er… let’s say that’s like Morrissons).

The new boy – or rather nouveau garçon – on the block is a French giant called Carrefour and it is annihilating the locals.

David and I go back to Gikomba and eat fish and rice. The we go to my room and select bras for his wife to sell. The bras are such a great business – there are dozens and dozens of women who have been started in business with a bag of bras from the exuberantly-bosomed British lady friends of Mama Biashara.

FRIDAY

Doris, one of Mama Biashara’s key helpers

09.57 – Off to get the bus to Mombasa.

Doris got the VIP train trip while I am stuck on a bus for a minimum 9 hour trip. There is still flooding so, if this is the last you hear of me, I want Sarah Chew to have my bondage boots and I leave my penis collection to the V&A.

In an interesting twist, I have the raging trots.

Why do I never carry a butt plug when I really need one?

The coach has seen better days. Many of them. There is no promised WiFi and no aircon. The man next to me has boundary issues as well as a weight problem. As night falls, the windows are all closed. Kenyans are paranoid about getting cold. We should arrive at 21.00 latest. We don’t. We do not arrive at 22.00. By 23.00 we are in a jam of epic proportions. All you can see are massive container trucks. Massive.

And I get a very good look at them because they are not moving. And neither are we. For about an hour and a half.

The man across the aisle is either sleep singing very badly or talking in tongues. This is the main road out of Mombasa. It is just a two lane street. Now with container trucks parked on both sides. And renegade coach drivers who, every time they see a small gap, simply drive up the wrong side of the road, thus creating a much, much worse jam further up. It is like a slow motion game of Tetris. And not a traffic cop in sight.

When I finally do arrive (00.45), Doris and I go to the late night bar. She has ordered food. My exhausted teeth bounce off the meat. Things rarely get cooked to tenderness here because of the cost of fuel.

Doris is itching like crazy. In an act of selfless humanity I stuff my arm down the back of her clothing and scratch her bites. They feel like mozzie bites, but she has a couple of little vesicles that do not look mozzie related at all. She slept over on the South Coast last night after being unable to get to the Mijikenda villages we were targeting. The entire area is flooded. Nothing in, nothing out. Unless by canoe. Absolutely nothing being done about it.

SATURDAY

I get a text from Doris asking if I have any cream for bites. I do not. I don’t have anything. She asks me to come to her room with any cream at all so I take a huge pot of the Ingram’s that we bring for the sex workers who have destroyed their skin by scrubbing it with household bleach twice a day (to look whiter). She also wants a bucket of water to wash herself. There is no running water today. Unfortunate, given that I am still in a minorly explosive condition. I had a Wet Wipe Rub Down when I got up.

The no-running-water thing does not apply outside, where the rain is TORRENTIAL. A cold shower would actually be possible at many points in the little dining room where the corrugated iron sheeting is allowing substantial amounts of water in. And the water from the guttering is emptying itself into the far corner of the room where the floor is unmade. Brilliantly, the lads who work here are using this water to wash down the floor and all the plastic chairs in the room. Top marks !

I get the call to go to Doris’s room. She is naked on the bed – an impressive, Rubenesque sight, were it not for the fact that she is COVERED from ankle to neck in bites.

We sort out the stuff we will need for tonight’s little clinic for commercial sex workers, pack it up and get into a matatu. The other side of the road – leading out of Mombasa – is just a HGV carpark now. The jam stretches over ten miles. A traffic cop comes into the cafe for a rest (ha!) and we hear him on his radio telling cops in the city centre not to allow any busses to leave the city till further notice. The road to town is falling apart, potholes and flooding everywhere. And the stink from the sewage is horrid. Billions of shillings are allocated here for upkeep of the roads but…

The waterfront at Lamu, Kenya, where Mama Biashara is huge

We matatu it out to Bamburi where we are meeting two groups from Lamu. Mama Biashara is HUGE in Lamu. We have a battalion of girls driving forklift trucks down at the new port construction and three takataka groups (garbage collection – we started one group and the others have grown from it). All the shoeshine boys in the old town are Mama Biashara boys as well as all the gardening and landscaping and all the tile cleaning. All of this has grown out of various groups started through Vicky of Vicky’s cleaners. The ladies today heard about Mama Biashara from the shoeshine boys and have, literally, risked everything to come and see me.

There is catastrophic flooding along the coastal road. The ladies we meet had paid fishermen to bring them over the flooded areas by canoe. And the flooding ain’t no millpond. Three of their number “didn’t make it”. We are still unsure as to what exactly was meant by that.

The other ladies here have come on behalf of their mothers who were too terrified of drowning to make the trip. A group of 15 ladies want to go into the firewood business. A tree costs about £25 and will – chopped up and bundled – retail at about £150. Unfortunately the trees come from the mainland by canoe so there is no economy of scale as each trip costs another £25. But the profit is still appreciable and the ladies get their grant.

The younger women themselves are representing a group of 23 who want to grow peanuts – a great crop for the island. So another £40 rents another one acre shamba for another two years. Plus the seeds and the rest. As we talk there is a loud crack and the left lens explodes out of my specs. The frame has spontaneously cracked. I put it back in and spend the rest of the time with my head tilted back.


You can donate to Mama Biashara HERE.

…CONTINUED HERE

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Filed under Charity, Kenya, Poverty

Humour’s not a universal language – it’s a matter of personal or national opinion

I have sat through some weird shit in my time

Michael Powell’s movie Gone To Earth, Robin Hardy’s movie The Fantasist and Edinburgh Fringe stage show Sally Swallows and the Rise of Londinian. They spring immediately to mind.

And I can now add to that an ‘acclaimed’ Finnish ‘deadpan comedy’ movie The Other Side of Hope.

I was invited to an “influencer preview screening” in Soho yesterday afternoon. It was in English, Finnish and Arabic. With English subtitles.

The first person I saw when I arrived was Scots comic Richard Gadd. His factual movie drama Against The Law is being screened on BBC2 at the end of June.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m the lead actor in The Other Side of Hope.,” he told me, apparently slightly affronted that I had not known.

Some people will turn up to the opening of an envelope. I will turn up to anything which has the likelihood of free tea and salmon sandwiches. It does not mean I read the fine details of any press release.

“How come you are the lead in a Finnish film?” I asked Richard Gadd.

“Because,” said Richard Gad, “I am half-Finnish.”

“Heavens,” I said, slightly embarrassed, “I didn’t know that,”

“Well I am,” he told me, slightly wearily.

Thom Tuck (left) and Richard Gadd at Soho House yesterday

The next person I saw was comedian, writer and variably-hirsute thespian Thom Tuck, currently touring Britain in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman.

“Are you playing Willy?” I asked.

“No,” he said slightly wearily. “He is in his 60s.”

I thought it unwise to mention anything about ‘playing with Willy’ so, changing the subject, I said: “I didn’t know Richard was half-Finnish.”

“I only know how to swear in Finnish,” Thom replied.

“Don’t let me stop you,” I told him.

“Kusipää…” he said. “Vittu pois… Kivekset.” Then, looking at Richard, he asked: “Was my pronunciation OK?”

“Pretty good,” said Richard, generously.

As for The Other Side of Hope – the film we had come to see…

Well, as for the film…

What can I say…?

One selling synopsis for it is:

MORAL CLARITY IN PLURALITY
A poker playing restauranteur and
former travelling salesman befriends
a group of refugees.

It is about a Syrian immigrant from Aleppo during the current civil war who is in Finland as a refugee.

The film won the Silver Bear Award for Best Director at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and rave reviews for it include:

“Combines poignancy with torrents of laughter” (5-stars. Daily Telegraph)

“’Surreal and screamingly funny” (5-stars. The Times)

“I laughed, I cried, I shrieked.” (5-stars, Observer)

It currently has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score.

People say comedy is a universal language.

Well, I am here to tell you it is not.

Rikki Fulton, Scotch & Wry: too straight-faced for the English

I remember working for a cable or satellite TV channel (I can’t remember which) and, in trailer-making mode, I sat through three episodes of Scotch & Wry, a legendary successful BBC Scotland TV comedy show which I had never seen and which I don’t think had been screened on English terrestrial television. It was absolutely terrifically funny,

After seeing the three episodes, I went back into the office.

“Have you seen Scotch & Wry?” I started to say. “Isn’t it absolutely…”

“Yes,” said someone. “It is utter shit, isn’t it?”

That was the general English view in the office and I think it was because star Rikki Fulton et al performed everything utterly straight-faced. I think deadpan comedy works with Scots audiences, not so well with English audiences and it may ultimately be a Scandinavian thing,

I worked in a Swedish TV company with Swedes, Norwegians and Danes. Each nationality’s sense of humour was slightly different and the Swedes in particular were very, very straight-faced though equally humorous.

My experience of Finns is mostly meeting them on holiday – particularly in the former Soviet Union and, as a result, in cliché mode, I think of Finns as very very amiable but almost always paralytically drunk (there are licensing problems in Finland and the exchange rate between blue jeans and vodka in Leningrad was highly in favour of the Finns).

All this comes as an intro to my opinion of The Other Side of Hope.

The film very-noir in its original Finnish: it translates appropriately as “Beyond Hope”

It was like watching zombies perform some dreary social-realist drama about Syrian immigrants in a grey city. It made Harold Pinter’s dialogue and pauses seem like Robin Williams speeding on cocaine.

The film opened with a woman wearing curlers in her hair. She was sitting at a table on which stood a spherical cactus with thin spines sticking out. I thought: This may be a commendably weird movie.

Well weird it certainly was but, for me, utterly titterless. Not a single titter dropped from my lips, missus.

There was a 10-15 minute section towards the very end of the film which showed signs of very straight-faced, deadpan humour involving a restaurant. But even that was titter-free.

I have obviously missed something.

It is oft – and truly – said that Tommy Cooper could walk on stage, do nothing, say nothing and the audience would laugh. I have often wondered if some American or German or Latvian who had never seen Tommy Cooper before would have laughed.

And there is the never-to-be-forgotten lesson of Scotch & Wry.

I am prepared to believe The Other Side of Hope has them rolling in the frozen deadpan-loving aisles of Helsinki. It left me totally enjoyment-free. It was a bleak film about a Syrian immigrant in Helsinki in which people didn’t say much. But, then, I did enjoy Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness, I like eating kimchi and, as a child, I enjoyed cod liver oil.

The Other Side of Hope has had great reviews. It can survive without me.

As a coda to all this, I should mention that, as we went into the screening room, Richard Gadd told me he was not half-Finnish and he did not appear in the film at all. He had just been invited along to see it because he is an “influencer”.

This turned out to be true.

He is not in the film.

Yesterday afternoon was just totally weird. I also met a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head like Carmen Miranda. He was not smiling. He may have been an actor of Finnish origin.

Oh, alright.

I made that bit up. I did not meet a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head.

The rest is true.

Though I am beginning to think I may have dreamt the whole of yesterday.

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Filed under Comedy, Finland, Humor, Humour, Movies