So I got an e-mail from comedian Matt Price. It read:
Last November, I received a stab vest through the post from a friend of mine with a “colourful past”. I was wondering if you have time to discuss this or if indeed it would be of interest to you in your blog.
So obviously we met up in Camden Town this week. Less obviously, we met in a McDonald’s. He had tea. I had ice cream. He brought along the stab vest in a suitcase.
“I don’t know what they’ll make of it in McDonald’s if I get it out,” Matt said.
“Better than getting it out in a bank,” I suggested.
Last year, Matt’s Edinburgh Fringe show Turkeygate, Tinky Winky and The Mafia was about a dodgy UK promoter who booked him on a dodgy series of gigs in Turkey involving some dodgy Turks with alleged criminal associations.
There was a problem when Matt performed his show.
“During the Fringe last year,” Matt told me, “there wasn’t an altercation as such but there was an incident with another comedian every day. The guy who was on after me said I was not there to do an hour, I was there to do 45 minutes and so he would turn up after I had been doing my show for 40 minutes and I ended up getting kicked out on the street every night, performing my show to my audience out on the street.
“Then I got a threat from Turkey, saying: I hear you are out on the streets of Edinburgh talking about my family!”
“So this dodgy Turkish guy,” I asked, “thought that you were just generally standing in the middle of Princes Street in Edinburgh bitching to passers by and one-and-all about him and his family?”
“Yes,” said Matt, “and he was understandably upset. I think he was concerned I was going to start badmouthing him in London too. I was having nightmares. I was staying in a room in (Scotsman journalist) Claire Smith’s flat and quite often she told me: Matt, you were screaming in the middle of the night!”
“And then you got this threat?” I asked.
“Yes. On Facebook. I wasn’t thinking clearly. So I phoned up ‘Stab Vest’ Steve and said to him: Look, I’m actually quite frightened.”
“’Stab Vest’ Steve?” I asked. “In London?”
“Hertfordshire,” said Matt.
“That’s where I live,” I said. “This is not re-assuring.”
“So ‘Stab Vest’ Steve sent me a stab vest recorded delivery through the post and my missus Martha signed for it, thinking it was something she had bought off eBay. She opened it up and, when I got back home again, she said: We’ve been together for nine years. I know we’ve had our ups and downs. But why have you got a stab vest?
“The thing is it doesn’t actually fit. My stomach’s exposed. So Steve either thinks I’m physically smaller or that I‘m a teenage girl. It’s of no practical use.
“I phoned up Steve and said The missus is being a bit funny about this and he explained the situation to her, then he told me the stab vest was worth £400 and got me to phone ‘The Boss’ (a well-known celebrity criminal mentioned under this nom-de-crime in Matt’s show last year) and, once ‘The Boss’ stopped laughing, he said:
“Now, look, I’m really sorry, but you’ve been threatened on Facebook. Have a think about that for a second. If I threatened somebody on Facebook and that person ended up hurt and I was taken to court, people would turn up just to piss themselves laughing.”
“Had the Turkish guy,” I asked, “threatened you from a Facebook account with his real name on?”
“What had the threat been?” I asked.
“He said: I am going to send a North London crime family around to your storytelling night in Camden to beat you up.
“‘The Boss’ told me: You need to e-mail him back and say: Thankyou very much. Hope you and your family are well. Message understood completely. Tell the family to arrive early, because we are a very popular night.
“‘The Boss’ told me: You are a very easily frightened person. If you were going to get killed, they would have just killed you. There’s plenty of holes in the ground.
“But it was mindless panic I felt. The result was I spent several months this year being very angry with myself for being under-assertive. I thought: Why don’t you stand up for yourself? You get walked over all the time? And that led me to this year’s Fringe show.”
“Well promoted, if un-subtle,” I said. “What’s it called?”
“The Maryhill Dinosaur.”
Maryhill is an area in Glasgow.
“Initially,” said Matt, “it was inspired by the true story of a local character called Arthur in his mid-fifties who believed he was a dinosaur. But the show has turned into being about my own lack of self-assertion. The basic premise is that I spent several months of last year feeling bad about myself for being a guy anybody can walk all over. But then I realised that, if I wasn’t that guy, I wouldn’t have met all these great people.”
“Gangsters,” replied Matt.
I said: “I think it’s wise not to be too assertive to certain gangsters.”
“Well,” said Matt, “I’ve sort of reached a point with the gangsters now where I can speak my mind with them. I know where the boundaries are and, actually, they quite like it. The only thing that gangsters seem to dislike is anybody who pretends to be one of them when they’re not.”
“Oddly,” I said, “I think the biggest thing proper criminals don’t like is dishonesty. The really dangerous people are the quiet ones. I’ve met about three allegedly-ex-SAS men and they were all very quiet and polite and wouldn’t say boo to a mouse.”
“Have you ever met people who pretend to be in the SAS?” asked Matt. “That’s a very popular thing in Cornwall. You get a certain breed of middle-aged man in his fifties… Mythology is something people can manipulate. Years ago, I mentioned to (the comedian) Ian Cognito: There’s a rumour going round you used to be an opera singer and he said: Oooh! Keep that one going, dahlin’ – I do like that one!
“‘The Boss’ likes to be talked about. He saw my show in Essex last year and, afterwards, he asked me Why didn’t you use my real name? and I told him I didn’t want to be another hanger-on. The world’s full of people who say Oh, I know ‘The Boss’ but I don’t want to be that sort of guy. And I like him. I don’t like the crime, I’m not drawn to the violence. What I’m drawn to is the humour and the psychology and who wouldn’t be? Because gangsters think differently and yet – as you know – they’re capable of compassion and they can be very nice and yet they may bite your nose off.”
“What’s interesting,” I said, “is there has always been a cross-over between showbiz and crime.”
“Yes,” agreed Matt.
“It’s partly the financing of the business,” I said, “but it’s not just that. There’s some sort of mentality link-up. Maybe a performer wants to be up on stage and hear the applause and be watched and that’s like being a ‘Face’ in your local community. You can stride round Bethnal Green or Lewisham or Tottenham and people will be frightened of you. Maybe it’s that Godfather thing of respect. Comedians want to get up on stage and boost their self-esteem by being laughed at and, when The Krays walked round the East End and people were frightened into showing them respect, they thought they had ‘made it’ in much the same way. Though maybe not so many people laughed at the Krays.”
“I see what you mean,” said Matt, “but I’ve always felt comedy and boxing are more linked.”
“Have you boxed?” I asked.
“Oh, I was terrible at boxing. I wasn’t very assertive, but I don’t like to give up easily. So that made it a nightmare. When you punch someone in the head and then apologise, they don’t take it very well. I found it makes them furious.”