A little bit of North Korea in London and glowing balloons in my garage…

Eager eaters await the opening of an ‘all-you-can-eat’ Korean BBQ restaurant in New Malden…

I am interested in North Korea and in the content of dreams.

Last night, I went to New Malden, Surrey, on the outskirts of London, with comedy afficionado and occasional Leicester Comedy Festival judge Louisette Stodel. Each of us was buying the other a belated birthday meal. So, appropriately, given her family background, we went Dutch.

We went to New Malden (her suggestion) to eat because I have been to North Korea twice, it interests me and New Malden has the largest population of North Korean ex-pats in Europe. In April this year, reportedly, around 700 of the 25,000 Koreans living in New Malden were from North Korea. New Malden’s total population was said to be around 90,000.

Statistics seem a little vague. A 2015 report in the Independent newspaper claimed New Malden had a population of just under 29,000 and 10,000 were Korean, 700 being North Korean.

Whatever… I was hoping for a little bit of suburban exoticism in an outer London borough. Sadly, New Malden was a bit bland, although it did have a fair number of Korean restaurants, a fish shop selling Vietnamese ‘swimming blue crap’,

one restaurant with a printed and priced menu which also had a pink post-it note under plastic saying “PLEASE NOTE: PRICES MAY VARY” 

and what appeared to be permanent Christmas lights on the lamp posts in the main street.

The local Methodist Church also appeared to be having a Korean Festival but, as the banner was in Korean script, I was a bit vague on the details.. 

However, over our sundry kimchee courses at the excellent Treestone BBQ restaurant, adjoining the ‘swimming blue crap’ fish shop, the subject of dreams came up…

An unusually reticent Louisette at the Korean

JOHN: So the other night, you had a dream about my garage?

LOUISETTE: I dreamt it was going to become an underground theatre.

JOHN: … and I was running it?

LOUISETTE: You were going to show me what you had turned your garage into, because you had had this brainwave and you had said: “Louisette, I am going to turn this into a performance space.”

JOHN: And did I?

LOUISETTE: I didn’t get any further. I think I woke up.

JOHN: …in a cold sweat of fear?

LOUISETTE: No, I just thought: Oh! I think it’s quite nice, the inside of that garage!

JOHN: You’ve never seen it, though.

LOUISETTE: No, I’ve never seen it in reality but, in my dream, it was very bright and there were glowing balloons and bulb lights and…

JOHN: Glowing balloons? Not just ordinary balloons.

LOUISETTE: Glowing balloons.I don’t know why I dreamt about the inside of your garage.

JOHN: Was the garage going to be for arty performance stuff or comedy?

LOUISETTE: I didn’t get that far enough in my dream.

JOHN: I think you’re going to have to go back into your dream and check.

LOUISETTE: I know what the outside of it looked like. It had a pair of rotten old wooden doors, not an up/down….

JOHN: But I have an up/down and over metal door…

LOUISETTE: I’m sure you do, but this was a dream. It was a dream!

JOHN: And did this come out of another dream that preceded it?

LOUISETTE: No. And I woke up in the morning and I thought: Oh, yes, John HAS got a garage.

JOHN: …but sadly lacking in glowing balloons…


(This dream seems as inconclusive as the population of New Malden. ANY OPINIONS GRATEFULLY RECEIVED on what the dream was about – especially the “glowing balloons” and the “pair of rotten old wooden doors”…)

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My advice for first-time visitors to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe…

My advice to people going to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time to see shows:

Don’t assume that, because a show is tucked away at 0930 or midday or 1600 that it is any less good than one at 2000 or 2300… and see lots of shows by people you have never heard of – take a punt. If you have already heard of them, you can probably see them in London (other cities are available), so ignore them in Edinburgh…

…and, in the Old Town, beware of swooping seagulls after dark…

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Is comedy dead or dying?… What I gibbered about on GBNews last night

A couple of days ago, I was asked to appear on GBNews’ today to give my opinion on the future of comedy. 

And, sure enough, last night I appeared briefly on the Mark Dolan Tonight show. That will teach them never to invite me on a TV show again!  I can be quite fluent verbally – in writing – but I am in no way vocally fluent. I’m not a fluent speaker. I gibber.

Anyway, I was one of three comedy ‘experts’ on Mark Dolan’s show, the others being US podcaster and author Drew Allen and the wonderful British showbiz legend that is Christopher Biggins.

I think GBNews may have mistaken me for someone else, as I was called a “highly-respected comedy journalist”.

Anyway… because this is MY blog, it’s all about Me, Me Me… so here are the excerpted bits with me. Spot the inconsistencies…

Mark Dolan Tonight with (L-R) Mark Dolan, me, Drew Allen and Christopher Biggins


MARK: You’ve written extensively for many years on the subject of comedy. Do you think it’s dying?

JOHN: I don’t think it’s dying. I think it’ll probably change. I mean, it goes through periods, doesn’t it. Hello Biggins! I used to work with him on Surprise! Surprise!

I think television has changed now. In the days of Surprise! Surprise!, what producers did was they made programmes that they themselves liked which appealed to viewers. 

Alan Boyd at London Weekend TV produced Surprise! Surprise! because he liked the sort of programmes that people wanted to watch. Nowadays, I think people are producing the sort of programmes they THINK the ‘lower classes’ want to watch.

So all these Oxbridge people are making programmes for people in Essex they don’t really know.

MARK: John, do you think Brexit has been a problem for British comedy? That sort of dividing live between Remainers and Brexiteers has been a really divisive aspect in comedy. Because I do know of comedians, John, who have been cancelled for being pro-Brexit.

JOHN: Well, I think it’s a problem in Society, isn’t it? I think by-and-large – a gross exaggeration but – by-and-large comedians tend to be Left Wing because they possibly rail against authority and that’s a good thing for comedy. So most comedians are Left Wing and, if you’re Left Wing, you take certain views. And, by-and-large – by-and-large – Brexit was a Left/Right divide.

MARK: What about shows like The Mash Report which seem to be one long attack on the Conservative Party and Brexit.

JOHN: I think again, that’s because television producers nowadays make programmes for themselves and their mates who have lunch in Soho wineries. They don’t make programmes for the punters.

In my glorious days when I was young in the late 17th Century, comedy television programmes were on in peaktime. They were on at 7.30/8 o’clock at night. Nowadays comedy tends to be either on minority channels like BBC Three or very late night or at 9 or at10.30.

In my day, comedies were populist. Nowadays, in a strange way, it’s elitist, because it’s made by people for their chums not for the people who are actually watching the programme.

MARK: We’ve seen, haven’t we, some comedies being given a trigger warning at the start of the show… We saw an episode of Fawlty Towers which was actually removed from its platform for a while, even though the episode contained a message of anti-racism which the Woke Warriors didn’t seem to get the memo on. That one. 

And then you’ve got shows like Little Britain which have been Cancelled by the organisation that made them – the BBC. I mean, Little Britain – OK, it was hit and miss – but at times it was wildly offensive and wildly hilarious, John.

JOHN: Yes, I think you have to be offensive to be… I think the key thing is the word ‘PUNCHline’.

At the end of a joke there’s a punchline and you laugh at the punchline. The reason you laugh, you lose control of your body, is because you’re getting a release because there’s a surprise – something you don’t expect. It’s a release. I gibbered there, but a punchline triggers a release.

MARK: John, last word goes to you. You’ve been writing about comedy for a long, long time, who are the greatest British comedians of all time in your view?

JOHN: Oh, you and Leo Kerse, obviously. (THEY HAD TAKEN PART IN THE PRECEDING SHOW ON GBNews)

MARK: (LAUGHS) God bless you. Have you been drinking again, John?

JOHN: (LAUGHS) I don’t drink. 

It depends what you mean by ‘greatest British comedians’. Michael McIntyre is a great comedian, but I wouldn’t go and see his show because it’s gonna be the same every night. It’s a very slick show, I prefer to see very uneven shows – rollercoasters – so… I wrote Malcolm Hardee – a great comedian – ’s autobiography. So I’d like to put in a plug for Malcolm Hardee as being an anarchic comedian who should be better known.

MARK: A wonderful comedian. I was doing a show at Up The Creek, his legendary comedy club in Greenwich, and towards the end of the set I said to the audience: “I’ll be back.”

And he shouted from the side of the stage: “No you won’t!”

There you go. Comedy’s always got a victim and on that occasion it was me…

(THE ENTIRE EDITION OF THIS MARK DOLAN TONIGHT SHOW IS CURRENTLY ON YOUTUBE)

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Consignia: The Flatterers – The end of their anarchy at the Edinburgh Fringe?

Admirably anarchic comedy group Consignia are performing their show The Flatterers at the Edinburgh Fringe starting this Saturday (6th-14th August).

It is a free show – you can pay what you like at the end – and it is not listed in the Edinburgh Fringe brochure.

Last year, they got two reviews at the Fringe, both 4-stars:

“They actively want you to walk out” ★★★★ (Chortle)

“They eschew likeability” ★★★★ (The Scotsman)

I chatted to Consignia’s Phil Jarvis and (late-on) Nathan Willcox via Skype…


Phil Jarvis (left) at home with a non-Vietnamese doll with a beard (right)…

JOHN: What is that doll?

PHIL: I bought it in Poland the other day. It looks like Ho Chi Minh a bit.

JOHN: ho ho Ho Chi Minh… No it doesn’t. In my bedroom, I have a painting of Uncle Ho writing in a forest. That doll doesn’t look like him.

An inexplicable painting of Ho Chi Minh in a forest in my bedroom…

PHIL: It has his beard.

JOHN: Is the doll relevant to your show?

PHIL: No.

JOHN: Why is your show called The Flatterers?

PHIL: There was a 16th century painting called The Flatterers, so we just borrowed the title. It was about brown-nosing, so we thought we’d use that. By Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

Potentially relevant – The Flatterers by Pieter Brueghel the Younger…

JOHN: That doesn’t really answer the question Why is your show called The Flatterers?

PHIL: OK. The reason it’s called The Flatterers is because it’s about the billionaires leaving Earth in the near future and me and Nathan play people who are on a sort-of a waste ship that takes away the rubbish from the billionaires’ spaceship. Basically, our spaceship is full of shit and detritus from the billionaires and Nathan thinks that, by eating the billionaires’ ship, he will himself become a billionaire.

JOHN: That still doesn’t really answer the question Why is your show called The Flatterers?

PHIL: It’s an A-Level style metaphor about the billionaires just shitting on everyone else. So it’s just really hammering home a (LAUGHS) quite obvious idea. Originally it was going to be a show called The Urn – a person who is having the launch for his art show dies and… But we’re not going to do that because I saw the error of my ways.

JOHN: The Flatterers is only on at the Fringe from the 6th to the 14th August because…

PHIL: Money. I’m paying to go to one of those student dorms and it’s £700 for a week.

An unrelated Consignia show was Lemonade

JOHN: The Flatterers starts at 11.00pm and is billed as being one hour long. I find this difficult to believe. I saw that hour-long show you did which lasted about 3 hours. You are the Ken Dodd of anarchic comedy. You got to the end of the show, then just did the whole thing again. How performing a 1-hour show twice even lasted 3 hours I don’t know. Has any poor sod got a midnight show supposedly following your 11.00pm show in the Banshee Labyrinth?

PHIL: (LAUGHS) Last year’s show was 50 minutes and we ran to time.

JOHN: Is The Flatterers really going to be the last ever Consignia show?

PHIL: I would genuinely like it to be the last one. It feels like… Why not? Why not just end it? Once you get good reviews, why not just end it and do something different. I think that’s a better tactic than…

JOHN: A better tactic than being successful?

PHIL: (LAUGHS)

JOHN: Define “do something different”. Doing mother-in-law gags?

PHIL: (LAUGHS) Maybe not THAT different! Nathan and I already do a podcast: Modernist Cat Wee Wee.

JOHN: Nathan got married. Has that affected the dynamics of the group?

PHIL: Maybe. Well, it was quite a struggle to get Nathan to come up to the Fringe this year.

JOHN: You get an audience, though…

PHIL: You came to the early shows before we were even called Consignia – when the shows were billed as Malcolm Julian Swan Presents – and they had a funny energy to them. And then it kind of found its audience without any flyering, which I feel a bit smug about while being bemused about it too. It doesn’t make any sense.

JOHN: Sounds like a good show review.

(There is a recording of the 2015 pre-Consignia show Malcolm Julian Swan Presents: Hokum on Soundcloud),

Galaxy, scrambled egg or vomit? You decide.

JOHN: When I look at the poster image for The Flatterers, am I wrong in thinking that’s a picture of a bit of vomit on some tarmac?

PHIL: It is, yes. That is our anti-poster. You’re meant to have your picture on a Fringe poster, probably taken by that photographer Steve Best…

JOHN: …or Steve Ullathorne. The Fringe is over-endowed with people called Steve.

PHIL: You’re supposed to look like you’re in a Top Shop kind of thing, but we’re all past 30 now, so we can’t even look smart. We put on a nice 4-star review from Kate Copstick (in The Scotsman) and a good 4-star review from Steve Bennett (on chortle.co.uk).

JOHN: Like I said – over-endowed …

PHIL: We put the review stars on there and our two nominations from the Leicester Comedy Festival, but then we thought Fuck Off! We’re not going to put our faces on it!

JOHN: You reckon, once you are over 30, you are past performing anarchy at the Fringe?

PHIL: Definitely! Once you get into your 30s, you are… well, the advertisers don’t aim at that group. If you go to Berlin, as we did recently – all these hip and happening places – they’re all aimed at people in their 20s, really. 

JOHN: Consignia played Berlin?

PHIL: Yes, we did a show called Maastricht Reloaded, which was actually made in 2019. We built a ClingFilm wall, which we stood behind.

Maastricht Reloaded by Consignia in Berlin…

It was just an improvised show about three hours long about the Maastricht Treaty. We weaved-in a story about Guy Fawkes travelling through time, trying to torpedo John Major’s government.

JOHN: Social realism, then?

PHIL: (LAUGHS) Pretty much, yeah.

JOHN: Pseudo-realism?

PHIL: That’s a great name.

JOHN: You can have it… You played the Fringe last year.

2021: “50 minutes of Migraine…” at the Fringe

PHIL: Yes, It was called Migraine. That was the one we got the 4-star reviews for.

The show’s blurb said it was “50 minutes of migraine”.

We were being quite honest.

JOHN: This year’s show is not listed in the Fringe brochure.

PHIL: Why give money to the Fringe Society when you’ve seen what kind of shit-weasels they are with that duplicity about the app?

(The Fringe Society charged performers in advance but never told them there was no Fringe app for finding shows this year, as there had been last year,)

JOHN: Shit-weasels?…

PHIL: It’s disgusting. What kind of people do that? The Fringe Society is just a toff club.

JOHN: If this really is the last Consignia show, how are you going to unleash your inner anarchy in future?

PHIL: I dunno. Who knows? I think maybe that’s why Consignia was there in the first place: to fulfil that inner need and to get a release. Though I think it became a bit more than that.

JOHN: So that’s enough for the blog…

PHIL: … and here’s the fucking prick!

(NATHAN WILLCOX ARRIVES ON THE SKYPE SCREEN)

PHIL: Where have you been? We’ve been talking for 24 minutes.

NATHAN: You didn’t invite me.

PHIL: That’s no excuse…

On Skype, Phil Jarvis (left) and Nathan Willcox focus on explaining their show title…

JOHN: Why is your show called The Flatterers?

NATHAN: It’s a gross-out, state-of-the-nation piece. It’s set in the not-too distant future when Earth has become uninhabitable due to…

JOHN: …the French?

NATHAN: Probably. Your words. Or climate change. Could be something else. Never specified.

We are in space on Waste Ship 6668…

JOHN: I get 666. Why 8?

PHIL: It’s a Dante reference.

JOHN: Joe Dante, the director of Gremlins?

NATHAN: No. Dante. The Divine Comedy. The 8th level was where The Flatterers were – in the 8th circle of Hell.

JOHN: I thought it was something to do with Pieter Brueghel the Younger…

NATHAN: The show was originally conceived by Phil because of Navara Media’s Left Wing reporter Ash Sarkar. There was a Tweet I sent Phil where there was an article about the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezoses… Their ships, when they go up in space… their waste gets thrown out and burns up in the atmosphere and is often mistaken for shooting stars. The Tweet said something like: Oh what a perfect metaphor for capitalism or something.

I sent that to Phil and he said: “Oh, we should do a show about that!”

JOHN: Close encounters of the turd kind?

PHIL: That’s gotta be the pull-quote from your blog.

JOHN: I can die happy.

(THERE IS AN 18-MINUTE, 46 SECOND CONSIGNIA “WELCOME TO DUNGENESS” VIDEO ON VIMEO WHICH HAS NOTHING WHATEVER TO DO WITH THEIR NEW SHOW “THE FLATTERERS”… AS FAR AS I KNOW…)

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Dan Came Third in the North Korean Marathon at the Edinburgh Fringe…

On Thursday this week, Dan Kelly starts the Edinburgh Fringe ‘run’ of his show How I Came Third in the North Korean Marathon. So obviously I was interested and went to see his preview show at the Museum of Comedy in London.

And we talked…


JOHN: Your show is very well presented, very entertaining and funny but it’s difficult to find much about you online… You are a man of mystery.

DAN: You won’t find out much online.

JOHN: Have you performed on stage before?

DAN: Not particularly. I’ve done a few bits of improv just to experiment and see what it’s like to be on a stage.

The image used for Dan Kelly’s Madras Years show…

I went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018, the same year I went to North Korea, just to see what it was like to perform there and I did a 40-minute free show – a character show – for two weeks. Dan Kelly’s Madras Years.

I was a chat show host who had had a curry with every celebrity in the world and I would take audience suggestions and describe the meal I had with the celebrity they chose. 

I know Edinburgh really well: I went to university there – I studied French and history. I would go to the Fringe every year and work in a coffee van in George Square. I just wondered what it was like to perform there and it was brilliant.

It was two weeks in a karaoke booth in the City Cafe which held 30 people. I worked out that, if I performed every day maybe I could get 15 people a day. After two weeks, I thought: How did I get away with that?

JOHN: You’re back again. So, after this, will there be a third show…?

DAN: I think the next show, if there is one, would be about my job and its travels – wandering round an Iranian supermarket looking for frozen lamb and so on.

JOHN: Your job is…?

DAN: I work as a data collector. I collect data on the cost of living around the world. Basically, I travel to countries all over the world and go round supermarkets with a dictaphone, recording the prices. 

JOHN: You looked at prices in North Korea?

DAN: No. I went with colleagues – five of us – in 2018 as part of a larger group.

JOHN: An athletics group?

5 friends backed up by the Great Leader and the Dear Leader

DAN: No, the five of us were just friends.

There was no reason to go there work-wise but we thought: This is a place we don’t cover at work, so how can we get there?

The idea of an organised tour came up, but it didn’t quite appeal.

Then the marathon randomly appeared and that felt like a reasonable way of doing it.

JOHN: Dangerous?

DAN: With the marathon, the course is set and there are marshalls on the course, but you are free to just run. You have to keep to the route, but it was one of the few ways we could see a lot of Pyongyang on foot. It’s probably one of the easiest, safest places we’ve ever been.

JOHN: And the local spectators don’t speak English so they can’t talk to you.

DAN: The only dangerous thing was the amount of alcohol available. Almost encouraged. We were told: This is part of North Korean lifestyle! From the moment we got the train into North Korea from Dandong in China, first thing… trolley down the train… “Who’d like a beer?”

We had two Korean tour guides and two Western guides and it was: “We’re gonna be having a beer. You guys having a beer?”

It was a kinda nice welcome, but then it was, “Right, we’re gonna have ANOTHER beer” and “Who wants to try some local drink?” And the amount of drink available was endless. There didn’t seem to be any immediate danger except for the fact that, when everyone gets super-drunk, that’s when people start daring people and saying: “Let’s see what we can find! Let’s go to the floors that they told us not to go to.”

JOHN: They were presumably trying to loosen your tongues?

DAN: That is what we couldn’t work out.

Dan forging ahead on the streets of Pyongyang…

On the day of the marathon, we did a tour during the day and were given loads of beer with our dinner and there was the post-race euphoria and I remember clocking ourselves in the bar and thinking: This is where the dangerous stuff happens. Late at night. The guides are having a drink at a table over there and we’ve been allowed to drink as much as we want. It  was 1.00am. This is dangerous. Don’t mess around!

JOHN: The hierarchy of the guides in North Korea is interesting. 

DAN: As I say, we had two Western guides and two Korean guides. One of the Korean guides did not speak English and one did.

JOHN: Mmmm…

DAN: Someone said: “They have to have two so they can check on each other.” Whether that’s true or not, who knows?

JOHN: When I went in 2012, we had two North Korean guides – one young, one older; and a driver. Someone in our group spotted that the driver wore a Party lapel badge but the two guides didn’t, which presumably meant he was superior to the two guides. And the tendency was not to pay much attention to the driver because he allegedly didn’t speak or understand English. Allegedly. So you were more likely to be unguarded in what you said to each other in front of the driver. And there was some thought that the younger female guide was more senior that the older male guide. What was your first impression of Pyongyang?

“The skyline there was… interesting…”

DAN: The skyline there was…  interesting…  That was where you got that first hit: This is a bit different! It’s like if you went somewhere with indigenous plants. They look like plants, but I’ve never seen things like this before! 

JOHN: I remember on BBC TV once, they read out the description of the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984 and showed that giant unused pyramid hotel. And it was pretty much the same as the description of the Ministry of Truth.

DAN: You went there in 1985.

JOHN: It was 1984 in 1985 and it was still 1984 in 2012.

The elephant in the room: It was 1984 in 1985 and it was still 1984 in 2012…

DAN: We were only there for four days.

It was billed as the 28th Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon in 2018 but, since 2014, they’ve also run a marathon for international amateurs. It’s a way of bringing in tourists.

JOHN: Presumably it’s also a way of showing North Koreans how North Koreans are superior.

Dan makes his final run in the national stadium in Pyongyang

DAN: The North Korean professionals run their own race and, in 2018, they invited two or three African runners at, we guessed, the level at which the African runners would challenge but not beat the North Koreans.

The Africans were staying with us in the same hotel and told us they did it for a small fee: We can’t win, but we gotta run them close. Their personal best times were just outside the personal bests of the North Koreans running.

They did the same for the women’s race and we saw female African athletes being blocked-off from water stations where North Korean athletes were welcomed in. Little things like that.

JOHN: In your show, there is video footage of the race and you in North Korea…

DAN: The first day we were there, they told us, “We do a video for all tourist groups. So, if you see a guy with a camera, don’t be alarmed.”

After three days, they played us two minutes of some of the footage – the film ended up an hour in total – and they said: “This will be available on DVD (for around £20). It had North Korean music and looked like a film out of the 1960s. I thought: YES PLEASE!!!

So I got this DVD and then, when I showed the footage to people back in Britain, I saw their faces and thought: This feels like a story worth telling… So the Edinburgh show all came via that.

JOHN: And you took photos…

DAN: Yes. We were told, if we took any photos of statues, we were not allowed to cut off any part of the statue on the photo. Don’t quite know why. Our cameras, phones and lenses were scrutinised quite a lot.

JOHN: Any foreigners watching the race?

DAN: Not so much watching, but there were about 1,000 foreigners entered that year.

Dan Kelly (right, in light grey top) on the Pyongyang podium

You finish in the national stadium and they pack it out with thousands and, if you get in the top three, you get to stand on the podium.

I scraped into the top three and got a medal and a certificate and a little bouquet.

JOHN: …and a fascinating and very entertaining Edinburgh show.

DAN: I hope so.

JOHN: Where are your next work trips?

DAN: Rabat and Casablanca in Morocco. And then maybe Gabon.

JOHN: How were the shop prices in North Korea?

DAN: Who knows? In one of the restaurants we found a drinks cabinet with Western spirits in it and they had some prices on, so we took a photo of it. I think we only brought back four prices from North Korea.

JOHN: Maybe next time…

(THERE IS CURRENTLY A TRAILER FOR THE SHOW ON YOUTUBE…)

c

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Watch out – it’s my time to feel very old

I was in a train yesterday when I heard an adult male voice across the aisle and slightly behind me say: 

“…and it’s got one to twelve on it because it’s divided into twelve hours and when this pointer is at 9 and the other pointer is just coming up to 7…”

He seemed to be explaining how a clock worked.

This seemed a little surreal.

I looked across and slightly back and, sure enough, the young man – in his early twenties or, maybe very late teens – was talking to his two friends – of similar age.

They all looked like they might holiday in Torremolinos for the sun, sex and club discos.

The man who was talking had  his left arm raised, pointing to the watch on his wrist with his right forefinger.

It was an analogue watch with a fairly large round face and his friends looked genuinely interested.

These were not children.

These were nightclub-going Essex type adults.

The man with the watch started explaining how the longer pointer showed the minutes and the shorter pointer showed the hours.

This got more and more mind-warping for me until I realised – guessed – that maybe – just maybe – he and his friends had never actually seen an analogue watch before.

Maybe – just maybe – they had grown up and lived their entire lives only seeing the time displayed digitally – on watches, on mobile phones, on TV screens.

They must surely have seen the clock face of ‘Big Ben’ on a TV screen at some point in their lives but – hey! – maybe they just thought it was some decorative whim at the top of the tower.

I felt very old.

I grew up in a world of primitive, long ago technology – analogue watches – as old and dead and near-forgotten as Latin.

Fugit inreparabile tempus.

“…send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee…”

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An Edinburgh Fringe show: PR Mark Borkowski on meeting “bonkers people”

The last time Mark Borkowski – legendary UK PR guru and master of the publicity stunt – appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe as a performer was 15 years ago with his Sons of Barnum show. This year, he’s back for five days (17th-21st August at Assembly, George Square) with an autobiographical show: False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to Unleash Your Inner Crazy.

So I talked to him via Zoom at his home in Gloucestershire.


JOHN: What is the “inner crazy”?

MARK: It’s about not suppressing the idea that something is a totally loopy thing to do. We are told now there are so many rules you can’t break that we don’t even start looking at really disruptive thoughts which might change our lives.

JOHN: Why are you crazily taking another show to Edinburgh?

MARK: It’s 40 years of the Assembly and it was really important to me. Back then, it was about building a network. I slept on a journalist’s floor – Nigel Reynolds. And it was because everybody went to the Fringe. Every arts journalist of any repute went there and I saw the importance of making a network. That’s what my show this year is about, really. It has lessons for people to think about serendipity and adventure.

We don’t talk enough about how important it is to connect. Everything is promoted through technology now. Zoom. WhatsApp.

In this show I felt I could remind people about the importance of the physical moment of bumping into somebody in Edinburgh and making a relationship.

I will NEVER have a bad word to say about Edinburgh because Edinburgh is different. We are all this inner chimp inside of us: the caveman. We are all fired-up by feeding, fucking and fighting that Steve Peters, in The Chimp Paradox, wrote about. We’ve gotta make the effort.

So I thought Forty years! It would be an interesting point to juxtapose 40 years ago when I publicised and produced a show and lost a lot of money and saw failure… and learning from all that failure.

JOHN: So it’s good to fail at the Edinburgh Fringe?

MARK: Learning from failure in Edinburgh is a fantastic lesson. You learn about money; you learn about what’s good and bad; you see other things that are good; you learn from other people; and it’s a massive classroom. If you allow it to be. Reminding people about the elemental power of Edinburgh is partly why I wanted to go again.

I’ve been stuck, because of Covid, not enjoying culture for two years. So I wanna get that huge fix again. I want to be reminded that there are lunatics in Edinburgh. There are crazy people doing stuff – and I don’t mean the over-promoted stuff. The big arena/massive venue stuff is not the real Edinburgh Fringe.

JOHN: What is?

MARK: Some sweaty, horrible place that probably doesn’t quite pass fire or safety regulations but you’ll probably see something bonkers there. The act might not become Michael McIntyre or find its way onto Britain’s Got Talent – well, maybe it will as a freak – but it’s something to remind ourselves and re-plug-in.

In many ways, I see this as an experiment. My last show 15 years ago – Sons of Barnum – was an experiment to see if I had a book, maybe inspired by you a bit. And this time I want to see if there’s room for an autobiography of lunatics or ‘disruptors’ I’ve met.

If people buy into that, then maybe I will set about writing a book about it as well.

Let’s see if a younger audience – and it WILL be a younger audience in Edinburgh this year – will they buy into my mantra. If they do buy into my mantra, then there’s a hope I can do more. I am using Edinburgh as an experiment and that is what the Fringe used to be about.

JOHN: Surely An Autobiography About a Bunch of Showbiz Lunatics must be a commercial book?

MARK: Well, you have to strike the right balance. Publishers want the juicy stuff and I wouldn’t ever give away stuff that was entrusted to me. There would be stuff they would want me to focus on that I’m not interested in talking about.

JOHN: You can’t libel dead people.

MARK: Yeah, but their families are still there and, if their families don’t know the stories, what right have I got to tell the story of someone who didn’t want it to be told? There’s responsibility in memory which you have as a professional. You were paid; you had a trusted relationship. Some people I fell out with, but that’s no reason to do anything. If you seek revenge, prepare to dig two graves.

JOHN: You could write a real tell-all book that’s only published after your death. You’ll be dead and all the relevant people will be dead.

MARK: But your motivation when you’re alive should remain when you’re in your grave.

JOHN: When you are running a successful PR company, presumably to make money you have to have boring clients despite the fact your passion is to have mad clients.

MARK: It’s a balance. I always had and always will have an ear open to somebody with a mad idea.

JOHN: Have you ever actually turned down a client because they were going to be too boring? 

MARK: Oh, loads. In the early days, I did turn down half a million quid. I just felt it would dry me up. 

JOHN: It says here you’re “the last of the old school publicists”. How are the new publicists different?

MARK: Influencers. Influencer relations. It’s more using tech. Young people just won’t pick up the phone.

  • “Well, I texted him”…
  • “Well, pick up the fucking phone and talk to them!” 

People THINK they want to be a publicist, want to be a storyteller… but they just don’t pick up the phone! 

JOHN: Surely they can FaceTime rather than pick up the audio phone?

MARK: Same difference. I’m talking about the fact they would rather deal with an issue in a 3-line text. That is bizarre to me.

The other day, a tech journalist said to me that he could never get to meet people but finally he met this PR person for coffee and, afterwards, she called him up and said:

“I really enjoyed that. Can I ask a favour?… Would you say you met two of my friends?… Our boss is pushing us to go out all the time to meet people. We don’t really want to do that. So, if you could just say you ‘met’ them, my boss will be off their backs.”

I thought how terribly sad that was. To have a metric, a box ticked. I’m not anti-tech, but I just think we’re losing something.

I’m sick and tired of people who rely on everything from apps. To be guided around a city, to date, to shag. They probably even use WhatsApp to get their drugs.

I think there is something important about the connection of meeting people.

JOHN: We are talking on Zoom. You are in the West Country; I am in London. Does this count as meeting me?

MARK: Yes and no. It’s the best thing we can do until we get back to the idea of me coming back to London five days a week… No, it’s not the same… But, if you can’t have a ten minute conversation about an issue, hearing the tone of voice and so on, what’s the point? What do you KNOW about that person from a text?

JOHN: PR is just advertising face-to-face…?

MARK: There was a horrible time in the 2000s where ad agencies did see PR as an extension of advertising.

JOHN: Isn’t it?

MARK: It’s a communication practice to be sure, but… PR is a many-headed hydra. You cut one off and there’s another one that grows on in a different way. PR is a subtler craft of using influencers and social media and building content and a network.

JOHN: What’s the point of paying for PR at the Edinburgh Fringe? Acts can do it themselves.

MARK: Well some people go up and have a punt and they’re not very professional. They don’t understand the story or how to run a stunt, so it just becomes a bit of a noise.

JOHN: Your show False Teeth in a Pork Pie is only on for five days…

MARK: A five-day experiment.

JOHN: And after that?

MARK: I genuinely don’t know. I’m following my own mantra: Just see what happens. If it works, maybe I’ll travel it around, come to London with it. There’s a smattering of names in it. The Marlon Brando moment with Tony Kaye… My madness in Swindon… How I escaped being arrested… Stuff about Charles Hawtrey when I had to look after him… and just the joy of bonkers people, really.

They think differently; they look at things differently. I would never have met them if I hadn’t started my venture partly in Edinburgh and trusted in getting lost.

Serendipity is that event or that person you just bump into. That’s the joy of the Edinburgh Fringe.

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Brian Damage and Krysstal, Malcolm Hardee reborn plus balls and bagpipes…

(Photo via pxhere.com)

Some stories which I do not mention in this blog are often even more interesting than what appears, but not quite long enough to blog about. And some are just plain unrepeatable.

Last week, I spent Tuesday evening in the company of the infamous Flying Haidrani Twins, purveyors of the best gossip and most scandalous international tales in Greater London. Sadly my lips are sealed on the details, but I hope their cracking stories will surface in some future novel or magazine article by one or both of them.

The night before that, I went to Chesham Cricket Club which, somewhat unexpectedly, is in the same place as Chesham Football Club. This confused several revellers.

I was there because comedy act Brian Damage & Krysstal were hosting a farewell event. They are moving to Australia.

Brian Damage and Krysstal – any old excuse for a party…

Well, it turned out they are not actually moving to Australia until September but – hey! – any excuse for a party.

For almost the whole of this century, they hosted the Pear Shaped comedy club, which they wrongly billed as the second worst comedy club in London.

At some point during the evening, with cricket continuing in the background, four comics were discussing heckler anecdotes and Brian recalled one female comic’s response to an annoying heckler: she took a fish out of her clothing and threw it at the heckler, catching him in the face.

After that, Brian & Krysstal implemented a ‘no fish’ policy at the gigs they hosted.

Apparently the fish was not part of the planned act; it just happened to be in the comic’s clothing.

Cricket ground selfie by Pam Ford with (L-R) Stephen Carlin & Andrew O’Neill

Andrew O’Neill, one of the veritable plethora of comedy industry people who got up on stage to pay tribute to Brian & Krysstal said:

“I started in 2002 and I never met Malcolm Hardee and there are all these stories about him, but I feel like we’ve got our own Malcolm Hardee now, but there’s two of them in Brian & Krysstal.

“I can’t remember the first time I went to Pear Shaped; they sort-of morphed into one incredible adventure. But that absolute fucking madness… held together by what I genuinely believe is one of the funniest comedy acts I’ve ever seen.”

The evidently not incomparable Malcolm Hardee was renowned for having the biggest bollocks in British showbiz.

Patsy Kensit as a baby with (L-R) her father James, her mother Margaret and her family godfather Reginald…

But in fact, he told me, he only had the SECOND biggest bollocks in British showbiz.

He had once come second in a table-top contest with Patsy Kensit‘s father ‘Jimmy the Dip’ who, allegedly, used to book acts for, I was told, the British Army. 

Two nights before Brian & Krysstal’s cricket-based farewell, I had bumped into Malcolm Hardee’s chum Martin Soan at a wake for Dave ‘Bagpipes’ Brooks, an early occasional member of Martin and Malcolm’s Greatest Show on Legs comedy group.

Dave Brooks died two years ago but Covid had delayed the get-together.

So it goes.

Dave Brooks with offensive bagpipes

In 1981, Dave was part of The Human Scottish Sword Dance with the Greatest Show on Legs on the TV show Game For a Laugh in which they performed a ‘human sword dance’ in Highland costume, with presenter Matthew Kelly lying on the ground instead of swords, looking up while The Greatest Show on Legs members danced over him. 

Martin Soan mentioned something I had never realised before: that, in keeping with Scottish tradition, the Greatest Show on Legs wore nothing under their kilts on this (and no doubt other) occasions. 

Alas, YouTube have seen fit to remove the relevant clip. 

Dave’s son Charlie Brooks reminded me that one of Dave’s many claims to fame was a court fight with the Corporation of London over his playing bagpipes on Hampstead Heath. I mentioned it in a 2020 blog.

In 1996, the Corporation prosecuted Dave at Hampstead Magistrates’ Court under an 1890 by-law for “playing a musical instrument (his bagpipes) on Hampstead Heath on three separate counts”. This was despite the fact that Dave had been playing his pipes on the Heath for an hour every morning for 15 years without any complaint from anyone.

History seemed to come to Dave’s rescue. 

One of the weapons of war used at Culloden in 1746

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Lord Chief Justice of England ruled that the bagpipes were not a musical instrument but an instrument of insurrection.

Dave argued his case against the Corporation of London on the basis that his Highland bagpipes legally remained (in 1996) an instrument of war and insurrection and therefore were not a musical instrument as charged. 

Sadly, he was still found guilty on three counts of playing a musical instrument and fined £15 on each count plus £50 costs. 

But, like Malcolm Hardee and Jimmy ‘the Dip’ Kensit, you have to admire his balls.

RIP Dave (1947-2020), Malcolm (1950-2005) and Jimmy the Dip (1915-1987).

So it goes.

Dave also used to play bagpipes at Indian weddings…

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Dan Harary (Part 3): The UFOs, the aliens… and then… After They Came…

In my last two blogs, American publicist Dan Harary talked about his life, his PR company, his flirting with the famous and about sex, his rock drummer background and three of his four new books. That was in the last two encounters I had with him. This is, as it were, a close encounter of the third kind…


JOHN: So, your fourth new book… After They Came – out next Spring – aliens… Surely a movie?

DAN: Absolutely! It’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

JOHN: Aliens?

DAN: In 2017, my dad passed away. He was my hero. He worked for the US Government for about 50 years. He invented missiles and radars and drones and satellite stuff. He always said he helped the US win the Cold War.

I’ve been studying UFO research for about 25 years. I absolutely believe there are others out there and they know all about us and the major governments in the world know all about them.

After my dad passed, I asked my mother: “Do you think dad knew about aliens and UFOs?”

My mother told me: “When he first got the job at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, in the very earliest days, they took him into the vaults and they showed him something and he came home and he was white.”

My mother asked him: “What’s wrong?” and he goes: “I saw something remarkable. I can’t tell you what it is.”

But my mother said he was scared. He was frightened and he never spoke about it to anyone ever.

There’s no way to know what he saw. But I’m pretty sure my dad knew.

Everything he did flew. My dad invented things for the US Government that flew; they all spied on Russia, North Korea, North Vietnam I know, Cuba… That’s what he did for 50 years.

So my dad passed. I went to a diner by myself to mourn my dad and thought: Right, I love UFOs, my dad passed away. What if my dad knew about UFOs?

So I’m at the diner waiting for my sandwich and on the paper napkin on the table I started writing ideas down… and I came up with ATC.

I’m thinking like: ATC?… After They Came?… ATC. After They Came. Yeah! I like that! That was the birth of it.

The storyline is a man turns 60 years old. He hates his life. He hates his job. His children don’t speak to him anymore. He’s depressed. He commits suicide on his 60th birthday.

He swims out to sea and drowns because he doesn’t wanna live anymore.

As he’s drowning, an enormous UFO comes out of the ocean and then, right above him, beams him up into the ship and revives him. There’s two benevolent aliens on board who we learn, through reading the book, have history with this guy’s dead father.

They save the guy’s life and they present him to the world at the Dodgers’ Stadium in Los Angeles.

The Dodgers’ Stadium – shaping up for a UFO encounter

The UFO goes to the Dodgers’ Stadium; they beam themselves down. All the media, the cops, sirens, the ambulances are there. It’s a tribute – a cousin – to The Day The Earth Stood Still.

They basically say: People of Earth, we’re here to help you. We wanna help solve your problems. We’re benevolent. We saved this man. If you have ideas on how we can help mankind, he’s the conduit to us. We have a relationship with this guy.

So they leave; he remains behind.

Now, he just tried to kill himself…

He’s taken to the President of the United States who, in my book, is based on Oprah Winfrey. You remember a few years ago, they said Oprah was going to run for President? In my book, she’s Tameka Winfield, an African American.

She says: “Who are you? How do you know aliens? How did this happen?”

He says: “I have no idea. I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t know.”

But she sets him up with an office at the UN.

The aliens come once every month to meet with him and they say: “How can we help mankind?”

Every month.

And he’s like: Climate change… Guns… Mental illness… Disease… Water shortages… Famine… Over-population.

Every month he presents a problem and the aliens, with their technology, help to solve them.

That’s the basic premise. I don’t want to give away what happens.

JOHN: That’s a film.

DAN: It’s Close Encounters meets It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Day The Earth Stood Still and the book is coming out next March…

Dan Harary – After They Came

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Dan Harary (Part 2): Seinfeld, sex and party night at the Playboy Mansion…

In yesterday’s blog, I chatted to US publicity guru Dan Harary, who is publishing four books between now and next Spring.

Last month saw the publication of Flirting With Fame: : A Hollywood Publicist Recalls 50 Years of Celebrity Close Encounters

…Dan with Steven Spielberg, Amber Smith, Ann-Margret, Dr Ruth and Jack Black…

The chat continues here…


“I was 24, no car, no money, no proper job, no connections…”

JOHN: You were allegedly Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘very first fan’ in 1981…

DAN: That is absolutely true. In 1981, I had been in LA for about six months. I was 24, no car, no money, no proper job, no connections. I was a gofer for a video company, which meant I had to run for sandwiches and coffee, clean people’s offices and my biggest job was to get my bosses’ cars washed: Jaguars, Mercedes, BMWs… They were all millionaires; I was penniless.

One day I went to the car wash. There were only two people there: me and Jerry Seinfeld. I had seen him the year before, in 1980, in Manhattan and he had been so remarkably funny. 

So, at the car wash, I turn and say: “Jerry Seinfeld?”

“Yeah?”

“My name is Dan. I’m your biggest fan.”

He goes: “Gee. I didn’t know I had any fans.”

We shook hands and I said: “I saw you in New York last year. What are you doing now?”

“Well, tonight I am gonna make my debut on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”

And that night…

JOHN: …he became a star.

DAN: …he became a star. Yeah. But the funny part of that story, really, is the second half… 

I said: “You and I are about the same age; we both came here from the East Coast; but I don’t have any friends here. Could you and I be friends?”

And he looked at me like this… (ODDLY)… and he says: “Weeell, I don’t give out my phone number, but here’s my business manager’s card”… He gave me the card. Nothing happened…

So, cut to 12 years later… 1993.

Jerry Seinfeld and Dan Harary in 1993…

I’m at a TV Convention in San Francisco. Seinfeld, the TV show, was now very, very popular. Sony Pictures were selling Seinfeld into syndication. 

I’m walking through this TV Convention. Jerry’s there. 

I went up to him and said: “Jerry…”

“Yes?”

“My name is Dan.”

We shook hands again.

I said: “I met you in 1981 at the Sunset Car Wash. It was the day you made your debut on The Tonight Show.

He looked at me and said: “I remember you. You wanted to be my friend.”

He pulls his hand out from my hand. He turns and he walks away.

As we’d first met in West Hollywood, he probably thought I was gay. Who knows.

“…women I’ve loved, lost or chased…”

JOHN: But you’re not gay. Your second book Carrots: A Sex Odyssey is coming out this September and it is…

DAN: …the history of women I’ve loved, lost or chased or never had the courage to love at all and there’s quite a few of them.

JOHN: In the blurb, it mentions you had a 20-year long sex addiction “later in life”. What took you so long?

DAN: I was very shy when I was young, even though I had the long hair and I played the drums and I worked with Bruce Springsteen and KISS and Fleetwood Mac – I did lighting and stage work at The Sunshine Inn. I was a straight-A student in school but, with women, with girls, I was very very shy. 

I was with my wife from the age of 25 to 36. We had two kids. When I got divorced at 36…  I was no longer shy…

From 36 to 56 I became a sex addict. I went wild for quite a while but now I’m glad that period of my life is behind me. 

JOHN: You worked at the Playboy Channel for three years and Playboy Channel events were held in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion West.

Hugh Hefner and Dan Harary at the Playboy Mansion in 1984

DAN: Most of the times I was there was for events during the day. I think I met Hefner three times; he was very nice. I did go to a few parties there at night. I wasn’t there when people were making love in the pool. I didn’t see naked people, but I saw some interesting things at night. 

The Halloween parties that he had! Celebrities were there and gorgeous 18/19 year-old girls with almost no clothes on. At one of those parties, I had my drink and I’m like the grandfather next to these young girls. They’re like my daughter’s age. 

I’m looking around thinking: For a straight man, this is heaven! There’s a table of shrimp and lobster and steak. And on other table is free alcohol: every possible drink. Garry Shandling and Matt Dillon are there I remember… James Caan. And then the girls! Every girl was drop-dead gorgeous and some were there with their mothers! 

I met this one girl of 19 and her mom was like 40 and they were both equally beautiful.

Dan and Playboy Playmate Kym Malin, 1985

I was single at that time but I was so overwhelmed that, after two hours, I actually said to myself: I have to leave! 

It was too much.

It was just too much.

JOHN: Surely you owed it to yourself to stay?

DAN: I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. First of all, these girls wanted millionaire, movie star boyfriends. I’m not a millionaire and I’m not a movie star.

A lot of women I’ve met in my life want to use me, OK. Can you help me do my PR? I’ve had actress women, models use me. I like pretty girls and they like to torture me! But that one night at the Halloween party I actually had to leave. It was like being a kid in a candy store but you have diabetes.

JOHN: You must have unfulfilled ambitions? You were a drummer in lots of bands…

DAN: When I was a Senior in high school, a friend of mine who was friends with Bruce Springsteen told me: “Dan, Bruce is looking for a new drummer. Why don’t you consider trying out for him?”

Now I did not like his music at that time. I was into The Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Beatles, The Stones. 

Years later, I came to love quite a few of his songs. Independence Day is one of my favourite songs. But, at the time, he wasn’t famous and I had no connection with his music. So I told my friend: “It’s not for me.”

Had I auditioned, you never know… I had a beautiful drum set, I was a very good drummer, I had met Bruce the year before. He would have known who I was. But, you know, I didn’t even drive? I was 16. Bruce was seven years older than me. If we had gone to a bar, I wouldn’t have been able to play. I was 16. Under-age.

That’s the closest I ever got to becoming a famous drummer.

New York’s Last Rock ‘n’ Roll Mecca…

JOHN: Your third book is Inside The Cutting Room: A Backstage Look at New York’s Last Rock ‘n’ Roll Mecca. It’s published in Spring next year and it’s about the music business…

DAN: The backstory is my best friend from childhood – Steve Walter.  We met in 1968. He and I grew up together. We were in bands together. We worked at The Sunshine Inn together. When I was 24, I went to LA; he went to Manhattan.

He owns The Cutting Room club. My lifelong best friend.

He opened The Cutting Room 25 years ago. A lot of very very famous musicians, rock bands have played there over the years.

JOHN: Lady Gaga was discovered there?

DAN: Absolutely correct. March 2006.

In March 2006, there was The Songwriters of New York Talent Showcase and 19-year old Stefani Germanotta played on my friend’s stage along with about a dozen other young performers.

There was a woman in the audience named Wendy Starland who, when she saw Stefani perform, called a record producer friend and said: “I just discovered the next Big Thing.”

Wendy took Stefani to meet this guy who heard her stuff, said, “You’re the new John Lennon. You’re a good songwriter,” signed her up and, the next time she played The Cutting Room that Fall, they introduced her as Lady Gaga.

JOHN: On your personal website, you describe yourself as “an author, entertainment industry publicist, drummer and former stand-up comic”. The domain name is danhararyauthor.com – danhararyAUTHOR not danhararyPR or just danharary… I know you have your business site www.asburypr.com but danhararyAUTHOR.com implies that writing is personally more important than other things?

“…the new Woody Allen. I was gonna write sitcoms…”

DAN: In Eighth Grade, I was writing short stories and my English teacher loved them; she told me I was a talented writer. I came to LA to be a comedy writer for television. I wanted to be the new Woody Allen. I was gonna write sitcoms. I came close with Seinfeld in 1992. I came close but didn’t sell my script. I came close three times; it didn’t happen. Along the way, I fell in love, got married, had kids. 

I’m a good writer. A lot of publicity, as you know, is writing. So my sitcom comedy writing ambitions veered off to PR. And that’s how I made a living for 40 years. It’s just how it happened. I told my mother: “At the age of 66, I’ve now finally fulfilled my dream of being an author.”

JOHN: So now we get to your fourth book… the one about the UFOs…

DAN: Yes…

(… CONTINUED HERE …)

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