Category Archives: England

The man who made equipment for Brenda the dearly-departed dominatrix

John knew the drill for the Malcolm Hardee Award

Eccentric inventor John Ward designed and made the trophies for the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe.

He can turn his creative mind to anything constructive.

My chat with a London dominatrix in yesterday’s blog reminded him of one of his more eccentric commissions…

Here, he shares his memories of Brenda the Dominatrix…


Some years ago I made some stocks – the three-hole jobby type for head and hands – for a dear lady – Brenda – who specialised in the modes of “indoor sports and correction”.

It was arranged I should pop round for a cup of tea and discuss the stocks and “any other devices that may be of interest” in her line of work. 

The tea was quite normal – “I don’t do chocolate digestive biscuits as they give me wind, you know,” Brenda told me – with an assortment of other biscuits on offer, all on a silver tray – “The real stuff. None of yer plated rubbish here!” she said – as we sat there discussing assorted manacles, stocks and “what else you feel would be nice”.

Brenda was in her late forties at the time. Her hubbie Cliff worked as a manager of a furniture store, in the fitted carpets and rugs department.

Once tea and biccies were consumed, she gave me a ‘tour’ of the house and all manner of ‘normal’ household gadgets seemed to have another purpose for her.

The canvas-type icing bag and assorted nozzles as used by bakers, once filled with a mix of gritty birdseed and lemon curd, could be slowly injected in a part of the body normally associated with exit work – “You have to get the mix just right and you have to get the speed right,” she told me. “It comes from experience.”

One item that had me wondering was the small, industrial-type floor-standing food mixer – I had seen one in our local baker’s years before as a schoolboy.

It was used by Brenda to mix custard powder with builder’s-type sand – “If Cliff’s not about when it’s delivered, it does my back in getting the bags in as it comes in half hundredweight bags, so I have to split the bag and carry it through in bucketfuls one at a time.”

Once her client was strapped down, naked with a gag in his mouth on a plastic-covered couch, she applied the said mix with a sort of paint roller – once again, speed was of the essence – until he was totally covered from neck to toes. The whole process took about two hours or so from start to finish, then scraping it off on old bits of newspaper before taking a shower.

I asked: “How on earth would people first find out they get their kicks from this process?”

Brenda leaned over and whispered: “I have three who did.”

In her dungeon – the cellar – she had manacles bolted on the walls – “My Cliff put them up for me with Rawlbolts. He had never drilled a wall before” – and a full-size rack, something I had only ever seen before in films – “The best part of five grand that cost me, luv,” she said, “but it’s got the best non-rot rope fitted to it.”

I made her a set of stocks as requested, then sets of leg-irons, chains and handcuffs to make it all up into what she called “something meaningful” .

I also did repairs and improvements as some of her whips were “not lasting as they should”. This was basically down to the attachment of the whip to its handle or grip and was, according to Brenda, all down to “cheap imported crap” as she could not get decent English-made stuff.

I put her in touch with a saddler I knew who supplied her with handmade whips although I then realised I had shot myself in the foot as my whip repair work dried up.

Sadly it all came to an end when Brenda had a heart attack during a ‘training session’. She was fifty-seven. Cliff told me: “It’s the way she would have wanted to go.”

At the time of her death, Cliff was away on a company training thing.

The poor client was chained up for about a couple of days before his (weak) cries for help were heard.

It was the postman who heard him.

A friendly matey policeman told me this and the same Plod mentioned that the chains and ‘restraints’ were so well-made “that Houdini could not have got out of ’em, mate.”

I kept silent on the matter.

The client requested no publicity.

I got on well with Cliff as he was always keen to learn what power tools did and I loved his description of Brenda: “She’s a little, fun-loving tinker is my Brenda – nothing phases her you know.”

A while after, he sold their home and moved to Portugal to retire early. He said the house brought back too many memories to stay.

I still miss Brenda and Cliff. 

She once told me: “Do you know it cost a bloody fortune to soundproof that room…”

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Filed under Eccentrics, England, Sex

Scots comedian Del Strain talks about treason and independence for Scotland

(This was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Del Strain not mincing his words in London last week

Comic Del Strain sits on a pile of newspapers

With less than a year to go before the referendum on Scottish independence and with support in Scotland running at a reported 25%, I though it would be interesting to ask London-based Scots stand-up comedian Del Strain for his opinion.

“We all need to decide,” Del told me, “and the Prime Minister Mr Cameron is making it so easy for the Scottish people to decide where they wanna go. “

“I think they’ll vote No,” I said. “Devo Max sounds a good alternative.”

“That’s not how Scotland works,” Del told me. “You’ve got 40% of people who love Ireland. You’ve got 40% who love England. And then you’ve got the 20% like me who despise both sides and think it’s everything that’s held us back a thousand years. That’s the way it is.

“It has been said on the grapevine that a lot of the southern (English) comedy acts have been finding it hard when they’ve gone up to play in Scotland this last two years because of this (British) government and the way it affects society in general. People have not taken to southerners.”

“But that’s ever since Braveheart,” I suggested. “I think the combination of Margaret Thatcher being Prime Minister until 1990 and then the release of Braveheart in 1995 followed oddly by the return of the Stone of Scone to Scotland in 1996… That all stoked Scottish nationalism and anti-English sentiment.”

“It’s not necessarily anti-English,” argued Del. “I saw a thing a couple of months ago which said the Geordies and people in Northumberland and even North Yorkshire said: If Scotland gets independence, can you draw the border with England further down, please?

“It’s that southern English guy in a Hugo Boss suit telling people it’s not a something-for-nothing society, even though the only time that southern man’s ever broke sweat in his life wasn’t with a shovel: it was wearing a gimp mask.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Coke-snorting, hooker-shagging (NAME OF A POLITICIAN CENSORED IN CASE I GET SUED),” said Del.

“I remember,” I said, “that, in 2008, ITV did an opinion poll in Berwick-upon-Tweed in England and a clear majority of people said they wanted to be in Scotland. And my Indian-born optician from Carlisle told me people in Carlisle want to be in Scotland.”

“Well,” said Del, “a Geordie is more like a Scotsman than someone from Surrey. Even people from Yorkshire or Liverpool don’t class themselves as being English. If you’re from Liverpool, you class yourself as being Scouse.”

“There’s a historical thing about the North being Danish, isn’t there?” I agreed. “The Anglo Saxons were only in the southern part of what is now England.”

“Celts and Picts are what Scotsmen came from,” said Del, “and then a wee mix of Scandinavian later on.”

“So, you reckon Scotland is going to vote for independence?” I asked.

“Through the looking glass,” said Del, “the sums don’t add up. All the problems we’ve got: dependencies and alcoholism, the ageing population of the baby boomers… I don’t see where the money is there to do it and fly solo. If it was 30 years ago, Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. But to hand us over to the European Union now and become what Ireland was? Another puppet? That’s treason in my book. To do that just to get a ‘Scottish’ thing in the front of a passport is treason.

“But I hear that possibly there’s more oil that we haven’t declared to the English state and that’s why we’re doing it. So, if that did happen, maybe England and Scotland would even to go to war again. Who knows what could happen? Who knows?”

“You’re saying that with some excitement,” I said.

“I would get evicted, I suppose,” laughed Del. “I’d have to move back over the border!”

“But,” I said, “if Scotland got independence, England would never, ever have a Labour government – because of the voting patterns.”

“But I think the three party system’s dead,” said Del. “I think what people should do is… The Solidarność movement brought Communism down in Poland.”

“You’re not mellowing with age,” I suggested.

“Not really,” said Del. “The way it’s unravelling is phenomenal.”

“What’s unravelling?”

“The whole world. Comedy. Life. The way it is in America. The currencies.”

“How’s comedy unravelling?”

“That little revival we were hoping we would get because, during the last Conservative government, comedy went mental with alternative comedy and it was actually good for it because people need a laugh… It hasn’t worked like that this time. The economics, the way I see it, is that people are going out and spending pounds on comedians in big theatres as opposed to going out to clubs… Clubs are closing all round the country and the trend is slightly worrying. You don’t need a degree from the London School of Economics to work out that, if there are less gigs and more comedians, something;s got to give. It’s not even new acts. Twenty years veterans are worried.”

“So what’s your future in comedy?” I asked.

“I don’t know. For me it was part I get a buzz off doing it, part I didn’t want to break the law any more, part positive affirmation of my son who’s just about to be 16. It was all a package of everything. I don’t know what the next five or ten years hold. I could end up living in the mountains in Ibiza in that beautiful little village they’ve got where they grow their own pot and grow their own food. I could end up driving around all over the country in a Winnebago. Or a could grow a Mohican. I really do not know.”

“In the meantime, you’re doing a mini-tour of Scotland in November,” I prompted.

“Yeah,” said Del. “Shotts, Dundee, Aberdeen twice, Liverpool.”

“Alright,” I corrected myself. “A mini-tour of Scotland and part of Ireland.”

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Filed under Comedy, England, Politics, Scotland, UK

American comedian Lewis Schaffer on the superiority complex of the English

Lewis Schaffer finds himself alone amid clowns

I was clearing out files and photos on my computer last night and stumbled upon a piece of wisdom from UK-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer which I had cut out of some previous blog back in the mists of time.

I am not sure if is about xenophobia or national insecurities or neither or both.

At first, I thought Ooh. That might be interesting because of the nationalistic rivalries revealed during the Euro 2012 football tournament.

Then I thought: Well, I suppose ‘twas ever thus and f’rever will be, so it is always relevant and worthwhile posting for that reason.

Then I thought: Well, it will fill up today’s blog space quickly and I have to get out of the house.

So this is what Lewis Schaffer said to me a few months ago:

_____

English people look down on Australians and New Zealanders. They are seen as cuddly because they are weak – like Irish people. English people look down on Irish people because they think they are weaker.

It’s not the case that every country looks down on everyone else.

Some countries you look up to because you’re afraid of them. You think, “Wow! They’re better than us!”

America, for example.

Or is that true?

Do the English look up to America or down on America? I don’t know.

English people look down on everybody who comes from any other country because they are not English. English people look down on Americans, because they look down on everybody, because the English are so arrogant, even more than the French.

French people think that France is the greatest country in the world, but they think what makes it not great is the dirty foreigners.

On the other hand, English people think that England is great and the only thing that stops England being great is other English people.

An Englishman thinks: “If it wasn’t for the other English people – if it was just me – this country would be unbelievably great!”

The average English person thinks: “If I was in charge of the NHS or in charge of football, the NHS would be great and we’d win every game.”

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Filed under Comedy, England, Racism

London’s naked bike riders exposed to heavy traffic yesterday (& Prince Philip)

Peter Stanford holding a bag of small genitals

(Versions of this blog were also published in the Huffington Post and on the Indian news website WeSpeakNews)

While the supposedly trend-setting Edinburgh Fringe gets more-and-more Puritan, edging ever closer to insisting that all female performers wear burkas… and this year – in a new move – censoring words like C*ck and Pr*ck from their listings because “our Programme is read by families”, London yesterday paraded up to a thousand real-life cocks, tits and ladies’ pudenda unimagined by the Fringe around the main streets of a sunny capital city thronged with children, tourists, persons of a nervous disposition and, in Piccadilly, three nuns.

It was the annual Naked Bike Ride.

I first met actor Peter Stanford at a Mensa meeting in a basement in Holborn, London. He was working as Henry VIII at Hampton Court and the Tower of London at the time, but had just dipped his toe into comedy – He had rushed on-stage at a comedy club in Kingston, done five minutes on why he hated Agatha Christie and rushed off again without saying hello, goodbye or telling the audience what his name was.

Yesterday afternoon, I met him again in central London, just behind Buckingham Palace, at the Wellington Arch, where Piccadilly meets Park Lane and Hyde Park Corner. Peter was naked and was wearing a crown; he was carrying a small canvas bag which had printed on it The Three Pintos.

Starkers starters with a prophetic message

“Why are you wearing a crown?” I asked.

“Because I’m Henry the Eighth,” he replied.

“Next week,” he told me, “I should be performing at the National Theatre in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, but they’ve cancelled it again, so it’s going to be September now. I’m going to be Lord Hatamkhan in a play by the wildly famous Azerbaijani playwright Mizra Fatali Akhundov – it’s his bicentenary.

“I did a play written by the current Deputy Minister of Azerbaijan. He booked a whole theatre for his bodyguards and people, just in case there was a coup or someone threw a bomb at him.

“Apparantly I’m reading Dickens to an Azerbaijani audience in a couple of weeks. I saw my name advertised and contacted the director who said he was going to tell me soon.

“As an actor in Britain, I’m mostly type-cast as doctors these days. I was an evil doctor in March and I had these genuine metal obstetric forceps and I strangled our heroine with them. That was in an opera.”

“And how long have you been doing the Naked Bike Ride?” I asked.

“I think it’s my fifth or sixth year. Just for fun. No reason. You shouldn’t have reasons for these things.”

“How did you hear about it?” I asked.

“Somebody said Why aren’t you doing it? So I did the next year. And, of course, I have been naked on Page Three of the Sun and also ‘Image of the Day’ in the Guardian.”

“Of course you have,” I said. “You have? Page Three?”

“It was a mass naked event by Spencer Tunick,” Peter explained.

“How many of you were there?”

“I think about 1,500. It was in Newcastle. During the Mensa Weekend in Newcastle. The one day I was in Newcastle, so I thought These things are meant.”

“And the Guardian?”

“It was the ‘Image of the Day’ – they have a double-page spread. They had a picture of the Naked Bike Ride but I’m right in the front. I thought People who read the Guardian are very good at re-cycling so, on re-cycling day, I crawled round all the bins in my neighbourhood and got ten copies.”

The Duke of Edinburgh, on his bike yesterday

At this point, a naked man with a Prince Philip mask walked past us, dressed only in bow tie and white cuffs.

“You don’t mind being naked?” I asked Peter.

“There’s a great difference,” he explained, “between one person on their own being naked among lots of clothed people and 1,500 people being naked.”

“What if it rains?” I asked.

“You get wet,” Peter replied.

“Human skin is waterproof,” a passer-by chipped in.

“Exhibitionism?” I suggested.

“Mmmm… possibly,” Peter admitted. “All us actors are naked on stage, you know,” he laughed.

“Have you done nudity on stage?”

“No,”

“This could be your calling card.”

“You get more money if you’re naked on stage,” Peter told me. “There are special Equity rates.”

“You have nude roles planned in the near future?” I asked.

“No,” said Peter. “I’m doing the Dickens bicentenary at the Poetry Cafe and I’ve got a one-man show as James Robertson Justice. I’m still fixing that because the hip young dudes who do comedy have never heard of him and the old folk who liked him don’t go to comedy clubs.”

“You look like him.” I said. “You should think about staging it at the Edinburgh Fringe next year, if the Fringe haven’t banned acting by then. People think James Robertson Justice is Scottish and anything Scots gets bums-on-seats. My mother met him when she was in the RAF during the War. She didn’t like him. He acted like a star and didn’t pay his bills.”

“Yes,” said Peter, “the more I find out about him, the less I like him.”

“Why are you holding a bag which says The Three Pintos?” I asked.

Riders were exposed to the heavy traffic in London’s West End

“It’s an opera by Weber,” Peter said, “but someone told me that apparently, somewhere in South America, ‘pinto’ is slang for ‘small genitals’. I’ve asked all the South Americans I know, but none of them could confirm it.”

“You are under-selling yourself,” I said.

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Filed under Censorship, Comedy, England, London, Sex, Theatre, UK

In Sohemia: God bless the onion-like layers of the English class system

(A version of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post)

I once interviewed Nigel Kneale, author of the still extraordinarily excellent BBC TV series Quatermass and The Pit.

He was born in the Isle of Man and told me he thought being a Manxman had helped him as a writer because his upbringing was British but he also simultaneously felt an outsider.

I do not have that advantage – though, born in Scotland but having lived my life almost entirely in England, I feel Scots but distanced; British but not at all English.

There is a layer of English society – or perhaps several overlapping onion-like layers – which floats.

I exaggerate, of course.

But there is a level of intelligent, sophisticated and moneyed English people who glide through life. They may not feel they have money; they may even struggle financially; but they know they have the security blanket that they are never going to fail utterly and end up in the gutter with no friends, desolate, unable to keep body and soul together.

This last week, I went to the Sohemian Society for the first time and I think that layer was visible. The Society is ostensibly a celebration of the culture and history of Soho, which has always had a Bohemian element to it. But Soho overlaps into Fitzrovia and both those areas attract interesting people. Perhaps half or more of the audience, though, had never heard of the Sohemian Society; they had come along specifically to see the speaker that night.

Before the talk started, a couple of women behind me were chatting about the actress Dulcie Gray, whom they had known; the very amiable man who sat next to me turned out to be the editor of a very exclusive reference book; the speaker that night, Andrew Barrow, had written a biography of Naked Civil Servant Quentin Crisp whom he and others in the audience had known.

Of course, grim reality enters into everyone’s life. Dulcie Gray died earlier this month aged 95 and, alas, was mostly forgotten by Middle England. The very exclusive reference book edited by the man next to me – like all reference works – is under an economic sword of Damocles held by Wikipedia and the internet in general. And Quentin Crisp died twelve years and one day before the Sohemian Society meeting, now just a footnote in English social history, perhaps even seen as a fictional character in some long-ago gay film – Didn’t he appear in that chest-buster scene in Alien?

And then there are the melancholic memories of what might have been but never was. The would-be Icarus characters who might have flown through English artistic life and might even have missed the sun but who never even took off.

Author Andrew Barrow was talking to the Sohemian Society (which is open to all – anyone can wander along) about his book Animal Magic: A Brother’s Story

It is about his brother Jonathan Barrow, who was killed with his fiancée in a car crash just a few days before their wedding in 1970. Jonathan was aged 22 and, a few days after his death, Andrew found the manuscript of a very bizarre novel Jonathan had recently finished writing.

In The QueueJonathan included several mentions of head-on car crashes and, in a another scene, there was another dark premonition of what actually did happen after his death. The church booked for his wedding ceremony did become the venue for his and his fiancee’s funeral.

Their funeral was just a few days before the day on which they had been going to be married.

Judging by the extracts read by Andrew, The Queue is wildly surreal, featuring a cast of humans, animals and hybrids.

When Andrew showed the manuscript to Quentin Crisp shortly after Jonathan’s death, Quentin said: “Your brother looked healthy, happy, natural. He could have played head prefect at Eton. But everything else about him is extremely odd. Not faintly odd. Extremely odd.”

The Observer has said the book treads the thin line between “brilliance and total barminess”.

The Independent on Sunday says it is “a wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous … with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals”.

That would be the hens and stoats and toads and suicidal owls, a central dachshund called Mary who is an alcoholic drug addict and extremely promiscuous, a spineless hedgehog, a human sheep old enough to remember Disraeli and a fish specially-trained by the police for “complex underwater retrievals” which gets lost down the drain in a dirty bookshop in Soho.

Not your normal novel, then.

Though very English.

Someone in the audience asked Andrew if he thought it would have been published if Jonathan had lived. The answer was yes, almost certainly, because Jonathan (who had a job in advertising) knew lots of publishers.

Jonathan Barrow, it seems to me, was one of those people who would have glided through life; he seems in retrospect to have had a wonderfully artistic and creatively fulfilling future ahead of him, gliding through English society.

But, in a handful of seconds, his timeline stopped.

It can happen to anyone.

Ars longa. Vita brevis.

The sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head, held by a thin thread.

Andrew Barrow has now had Jonathan’s book published.

And his own book Animal Magic – about Jonathan and about The Queue – has also been published and been described as “a funny, dark memoir. Think Tommy Cooper describing a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.”

Which may be a good description because, in his youth, Andrew tried to be a stand-up comic – mostly, he says, by nicking Tommy Cooper’s gags.

He admits he was awful.

But he himself is almost as interesting as The Queue.

He is intelligent, sophisticated, witty and a good writer.

He introduced the legendary Daily Telegraph obituaries editor Hugh Massingberd to Ken Dodd at the London Palladium.

He has lived.

Country Life magazine described Animal Magic as “Deft, witty and poignant”.

The Lady wrote: “This book ultimately belongs to Jonathan, and it is testament to his sibling’s skill that he appears here so vividly, his supreme peculiarity preserved”.

To the Sohemian Society, Andrew Barrow said: “If just one reader writes to thank you and say they enjoyed a book you have written, it makes it worthwhile. You hope to make them laugh. If they laugh and cry, that’s even better.”

Amen.

God bless Englishness.

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Filed under Books, Creativity, England, Psychology, Writing