The venue chaos at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe got even more complicated yesterday when venue organisers Freestival announced they had a new venue which will host up to 40 free shows on four stages every day. I had hinted about this venue in a blog earlier this month, which also mentioned another rumour which has not yet happened and one particular jaw-dropping fact which may eventually emerge, I suspect, next year.
“So I hear Freestival have a new venue,” were my opening words when I talked to Al Cowie. He was involved in organising the original Freestival last year but this year (entirely amicably) he is not involved with Freestival.
“Mmmmm….” said Al. And that was that subject over with.
“So,” I said when we met this time, “titter-making runs in your blood?”
“I do quite like a practical joke,” Al agreed, “Horace’s idea of a practical joke was a friend of his waking up with a carving knife embedded in his pillow. OK, that might seem a little bit mean, but I can see the funny side of it.”
“What’s a good example of a practical joke?” I asked.
“I was,” replied Al, “growing chilli plants in my house and so, one evening, we decided to squeeze the chilli onto one of the flatmate’s toothbrushes, which I thought was very funny, though he didn’t think it was so funny the following morning when he brushed his teeth.”
“Schadenfreude?” I suggested. “Did he get his own back on you?”
“He squeezed chilli onto my toothbrush. But I knew he was likely to do it, so I checked. And he was driving to Newcastle the following day and when he put his contact lenses in… Oh yes! With chilli! Really strong chilli!”
“Is that not dangerous?” I asked.
“Well,” Al said, possibly avoiding an answer, “there’s the tequila suicide where you snort a lemon and put tabasco in your eye.”
“And you die?” I asked.
“Oh no, it’s just a horrible way to drink tequila.”
“It surely can’t be good for your eyes,” I suggested.
“I don’t think it is. It is too dangerous to do practical jokes now: you would get arrested. We’ve become too serious. I really do enjoy popping brown paper bags behind people. I have a 120 decibel air horn on my bicycle.”
“You have aristocracy in your blood, don’t you?” I asked.
“A little bit.”
“That means a lot?”
“Not at all. I come from a military family. Winston Churchill’s 2IC was a guy called Alanbrooke and he was my great-grand-uncle.”
“What’s a 2IC?”
“Second in Command. He oversaw the retreat from Dunkirk and was generally credited with saving 300,000 there. And the Germans reckoned if they had had Alanbrooke to advise Hitler, they would have won.”
“Difficult for anyone to advise Hitler,” I suggested.
“True enough, but I think Churchill was equally difficult. He needed someone like Alanbrooke to temper his worst tendencies… and keep up with his drinking… I grew up very much in the countryside in Gloucestershire and Northern Ireland.”
“Your family were…” I prompted.
“We were sent over after the (Irish) Clearances. We were sent over to land that had already been cleared, rather than…”
“Where was this?”
“Donegal and Fermanagh.”
“There’s no reason I can’t print this, is there?”
“No. One of my cousins was Roger Casement, who was hanged by the British government. So I have family on both sides.”
“Cousin?” I asked. “Not a direct cousin.”
“Well, in Ireland, if you’re related, then you’re cousins. I was reading the history of Ulster recently and it’s quite clear that most people changed sides many many times. But I don’t really know my history. My great-grandfather was Prime Minister.”
“What was his name?”
Basil Brooke, 1st Viscount Brookeborough was third Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. 1943-1963.
“So,” I said. “Military family. Why weren’t you in the military?”
“I was in the Territorial Army for ten years. I joined in 2000 and the general feeling then was that there was going to be no more war. I joined the TA as a fun thing: keep me fit and a nice group of guys. And then 9/11 happened and suddenly everything gets a little bit serious.”
“When did you leave?”
“2011. I stopped really going after I broke my neck.”
“When was that?”
“Six months before I got into comedy, about seven years ago. I was riding one of the Household Cavalry horses out in Hyde Park first thing in the morning while I was working with the City of London Police and, of course, the Commissioner of the City of London Police would sometimes ride out with me…”
“Of course,” I said.
“…and he would then give me a lift into work. So I was galloping down Rotten Row and the horse tripped up and pitched into the ground on its head and so did I and I got compression fracture in my spine and, yeah, it was really annoying.
“I got an X-ray where it didn’t show up. I was in so much pain. It was like someone taking a sledgehammer and smacking it into my back every time I took a breath or took a step. I went to my GP, who was called Dr Savage, and she said: Well, you don’t know pain. You’ve never been through childbirth.
“She didn’t want me to have a second opinion, but I went and saw a neurologist and he said: Don’t do anything. You’re going straight in to have a CT and MRI scan. By that stage, I had already been on a military unarmed combat course for a week. Someone had grabbed my arm in that and I had lost feeling in my legs. I also rode a green horse who threw me off…”
“A green horse?” I asked.
“A very young horse. Then I went and saw a chiropractor who successfully cracked my back because I just couldn’t breath. Then I went to the South of Ireland and bonnet-surfed on a speedboat in a storm on a lake in Galway. That would not be sensible even if I hadn’t broken my neck. I do consider myself very lucky.”
“I think you should reconsider the facts,” I said.
“Someone has tried to murder me a few times.”
“You mean different people have tried?” I asked.
“Yes. Different people. Someone tried to stab me in the head because he thought I was posh and should therefore die.”
“On Battersea Bridge in London. He heard my accent and tried to stab me in the head with a Stanley knife but missed. He swung at me seven times, but I kicked him onto the ground.
“Someone tried to murder me in Argentina. I was hitch-hiking in the desert and this guy gave a lift to me, my friend and a random Argentine bloke. Then we set up camp in the desert and the Argentine bloke came up to us and said: Look, I think you guys should probably get out of here, because the other guy has just suggested to me that we murder you and take your kit. So we left that situation.”
“Has your neck mended?” I asked.
“I have an ache, but it’s nothing important. I don’t believe in pain. I think it’s your body complaining. Pain is not real. the damage is real, but the pain is not real.”
I must have looked bemused.
“Does that not make sense?” Al asked.
“Not remotely,” I said.
“Pain is not real,” Al repeated. I was not convinced.
“Isn’t it,” I asked, “something like electricity travelling down your nerves?”
“Exactly,” said Al. “The pain is just a signal. I once tried to take the blade off a circular saw. I put a spanner onto the central lug and pulled the trigger. The spanner flew out the window and the circular saw went straight through the side of my palm; I’ve still got the scar. I am so lucky; really very lucky. It’s enough to make you believe…
“…that God hates you?” I suggested.
“No,” said Al, “believe in multiple universes: that there are many other universes in which I’ve died.”
“Apart from running comedy gigs in breweries,” I said, “what are your plans?”
“Well, I do a drivetime radio show on Wandsworth Radio, 7.00-9.00 in the morning on Fridays. It’s only online – great for people who live in Hong Kong. And I’m setting up three technology businesses at the moment, which I can’t really talk about. And I’m moving more into clowning now. Clowning and cabaret and burlesque. I really enjoy doing different things. I had an awful lot more fun when I first started doing comedy. I once ate a girl’s sock on stage. Now I am enjoying myself again and having fun.”