Category Archives: Religion

Comedian Lynn Ruth Miller in Jakarta on lovely audiences and anti-Semitism

Lynn Ruth went on stage unusually “terrified” in Jakarta

In the last few months, London-based American comic Lynn Ruth Miller (who recently turned 85) has been gigging in Prague, Dublin, Berlin, Paris, Edinburgh, San Francisco and Manila. Coming up are gigs in Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Bangkok and, she says, “possibly somewhere in Cambodia”.

But last weekend, betwixt Manila and Shanghai, she writes…


I was in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was hot and wet. A characteristic I gave up when I hit sixty. I arrived at 11.00am their time and the first thing that struck me was how really lovely the airport was. It was amazing how easy it was to navigate compared to Manila, which was a nightmare.

Indonesians like old ladies and I was swept through Immigration so easily I thought I missed a window and someone would make me turn around and start all over again.  

David, the pastor for youth I met while waiting for the plane, was there at baggage collection to help me with my bag and used his phone to contact Eamonn Sadler, who books comedy at The American Club in Jakarta.  

I had had approximately two hours sleep on the plane and was not at my best as I staggered out of Immigration and tried to find Eamonn. But there he was towering above everyone else in that airport looking down at the top of my head.  

I just about reached his kneecap and I knew he was thinking: ”I hired a comedian, not a pygmy.”  

But he is British so he just nodded politely (at least I think he did. I couldn’t see that far up), asked me if I was all right (at least I think he did; my hearing aids were in my bag), took my case and I toddled after him taking fourteen steps to his one.  

As soon as we walked outside I was smacked in the face with hot, wet air.  

Lynn Ruth performed her show Not Dead Yet!

Even Manila is cool compared to Jakarta. But, indoors, the air conditioning is very efficient and for some reason you don’t feel that blast of cold air when you are inside.

The ride from Jakarta Airport took about two and a half hours. Obviously no-one in the place uses his or her feet and everyone has large, cumbersome, air-conditioned automobiles with which they enjoy trying to get as close to one another without actually denting a fender. Bicycles and motorbikes weave in and out between the cars making everyone hate them.  

The traffic department decided to build brick barriers in the middle of the street so no-one can make a right turn. So you have to do a U-turn at intersections if you can. But the roads are like parking lots and nothing moves.

When we pulled up to the entrance of the Liberta hotel, Eamonn stopped the car and I got out thinking we had arrived at our destination. But this was only for a routine inspection. There was a wave of terrorist attacks in Surabaya (Indonesia’s second largest city) last May and there is heightened security in Jakarta because of that and because they hosted the Asian Games. 

Foreigners are often targets, which is why most expats have a night watchman to guard their property and all public buildings conduct routine inspections on every car that enters their premises.  

By the time I got to my hotel room, I was in a coma of fatigue. I crawled into bed and slept until 7.00pm, when we drove to The American Club.

Since The American Club is part of the American Embassy complex in Jakarta, the security is even more intense there.

The thing I liked about the show, which had about seven acts, was that Eamonn established immediately that comedy is meant to be fun, not politically correct and everyone on the bill deserved to be listened to without interruption.

Even so, I was terrified that I would say something that offended someone or would go on for hours without that laugh all of us in this profession lap up like manna from heaven. Or that the local audience would not get the jokes. But they did. They laughed and they clapped and they all joined in the song that ended my set.

Another country; another cake. Lynn Ruth & Eamonn Sadler

At the end of my performance, Eamonn came on stage with… yes… ANOTHER BIRTHDAY CAKE and flowers. This birthday celebration of mine seems to go on and on and on.  If I keep getting all those cakes, I will probably explode before I am 86 or won’t fit into the coffin.

After the show, Naomi and Eric welcomed me on behalf of Jakarta’s Jewish community.

It turns out that there are about 20 Jewish families in Jakarta in this predominately Muslim country. It is estimated that there are about another 20,000 descendants of Jews who have assimilated and are part of greater Indonesia.

Indonesians must carry an identity card that states their religion and, since Judaism is not one of the seven they recognize, most Jews say they are Christian.  

Those who practice Judaism keep a very low profile. It is not easy to be Jewish in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and it is even harder this year, as anti-Semitic sentiment has grown since Donald Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a holy place to both Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. Every time there is a Palestinian/Israeli conflict, anti-Semitism flares up in Indonesia.

When I realized how dangerous it is to be Jewish in so many countries, I began to understand why the synagogues in Stamford Hill, London, where I now live, are so hidden that I have lived there for two years and only now have begun to discover where they are located. All of them are set far back from the street,  heavily gated and even more heavily guarded.  

In 2013, The Times of Israel reported that Indonesia’s last synagogue – the Beith Shalom synagogue in Surabaya, Java – had been destroyed to its foundations by unknown persons.

I personally have never encountered overt anti-Semitism and so I have never taken it very seriously but, when I met these lovely people in Jakarta who dare not openly practice their faith, I realized how deeply imbedded hatred of the Jews actually is, not just in Indonesia but worldwide.

The next afternoon, Joe and Rheysa took me to Jakarta’s version of an Italian restaurant: Mama Rosy’s.

It turned out that Rheysa once worked for L’Oreal and now she puts on a great deal of make up to look like she has no make up on at all. She explained the procedure for the ‘Natural Look’ that begins with ironing her hair and continues with darkeners and lighteners, blushers and intensifiers to make her look like the natural beauty she is in the first place.  

It occurred to me that I should follow her advice but iron my face instead of my hair. However, I gave up that idea before we got to our coffee. I have not so much as ironed a napkin in sixty years.

After lunch, we drove through the city and I was struck by how crowded the streets are, how dense the concentration of people and how little actual green space. The houses seem to be packed tightly next to one another and the streets are narrow, lined with tiny shops and street food vendors. It was a very different feel from Manila with its very tall streamlined buildings and wide highways. It reminded me a lot of Bangkok.

Jakarta – partly houses packed tightly together – partly not.

That night I had arranged to go to Naomi and Eric’s home for dinner to meet their three children and have dinner. When I got into Eric’s car, I entered a totally different world. He and Naomi have lived in Jakarta for 17 years.

His home is modern and spacious and they have seven servants, as do most of the well-to-do in Jakarta. They have drivers for the children, plus cooks, cleaners and gardeners. They are a part of an ex-pat community that does so well in this part of the world. Both are originally from the United States and after they married lived in Singapore for a while and loved it.

In fact, Naomi still works in Singapore several days a week and both of them do a great deal of travel. That is why they need so much domestic help.  

Yet they are trying to keep up the Jewish traditions we all learned growing up. I too observed those holidays and, of course, loved the special foods: the challah, the gefilte fish, the bagels and the chicken soup. Those things are as much part of being Jewish as observing the Sabbath.

China is next!!!! Not the dinnerware; the country.

But I got a message this morning from Andy Curtain who runs the Kung Fu Comedy Cub in Shanghai that the government had closed down the club.  

In China, there are all kinds of intricacies with licensing and permits that are only occasionally enforced. So it seems I am going to Shanghai with nothing much to do but explore the city…

… CONTINUED HERE

Lynn Ruth with the Jakarta show folk

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Filed under anti-semitism, Indonesia, Jewish, Religion, Travel

Maggy Whitehouse, comic and vicar: “Let’s say The Truth is in Finchley”

“I was at the end of my rope with Christianity…”

Yesterday’s blog was a chat with Maggy Whitehouse, stand-up comedian and freelance vicar/priest.

It was intended to be about her comedy, but strayed into religion… Here it continues…


JOHN: So, at home, you have an Isis and Mary altar? Isis the Egyptian god, not the Islamic fundamentalists.

MAGGY: Yes, Isis and Mary represent the Great Mother, because it’s all one Great Mother and one Great Father. The idea is she stuck her husband’s body back together after he was all carved up and she managed to conceive a child from it.

I studied New Testament Greek and really got into it and then I met a Jewish guy and he was at the end of his rope with Judaism and I was at the end of my rope with Christianity and my teacher of healing sent us off to this guy in London who was teaching Kabbalah, which is Jewish mysticism. So I started studying that.

JOHN: The Madonna stuff?

MAGGY: No. There are two sorts of Kabbalah. Hers is based in the 16th century and takes the theory that, when God created the Universe, he made a mistake. 

Mine is based in Biblical times, which is that, when God created the Universe, it was all perfect and we screwed up. Well, not even that, because Jews don’t believe in Original Sin, so how could Jesus?

Independent Maggy marries a Sikh man & a Christian woman

Anyway, there I was, doing this New Age stuff, doing funerals and my now-husband’s best friend was murdered in London and he and I were members of the same Kabbalah group. He asked me to do the funeral for Jon and my (Christian) bishop was in the congregation and phoned me up the following week and said: “OK, God told me we need you and you need us.”

I told him: “You must be out of your mind.”

But he was a guy after my own mind who was saying: Christianity has lost EVERYTHING. It’s all meant to be about love, inclusivity, kindness, simplicity. So I decided I would train. And I did.

JOHN: The Old Testament and the New Testament appear to me to have totally different gods. The Old Testament teaches “an eye for an eye”… The New Testament teaches “turn the other cheek”.

MAGGY: One thing is we only have one Hebrew testament. There used to be dozens and dozens and dozens of versions of it. But they pulled it all together into one after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. So we don’t know what the original text was.

We DO know that there are an awful lot of edits. And also, in ancient days, they read the text on four levels: the literal, the allegorical, the metaphysical and the mystical. If you take the texts out of the literal sense, they’re all about the psychological development of the soul. 

JOHN: You don’t sound especially Christian to me; just generically religious.

MAGGY: I am a very passionate follower of the teachings of Jesus… But he never once asked us to worship him. He said: “Follow me.”

JOHN: Buddha tried that. It didn’t work. I am not a god. I am not a religion. Do NOT worship me. But now loads of people clearly worship him as an idol.

“90% of people can’t be arsed to go to Finchley”

MAGGY: Of course it doesn’t work. The thing about faith is… If you like the look of it, you’ve got to go on the journey, go through all these Road to Damascus moments.

Let’s say The Truth is in Finchley. If you are a proper seeker, you travel to Finchley. But 90% of people can’t be arsed to go to Finchley, so they will find somebody who HAS been to Finchley and worship them. And, if they can’t find someone who has been to Finchley, they will worship the signpost… And that is what religion is.

I was Church of England, but now I am an Independent. We have been associated with part of the liberal Catholic Church, but I am actually ‘an independent’.

JOHN: If you don’t follow the rules of a specific recognised branch of Christianity, surely you are a heretic?

MAGGY: Of COURSE I am a heretic. The Methodists in West Devon use me – I’ve got two services this Sunday – 11.00am and 6.30pm – which is very decent of them. They heard me on BBC Radio Devon: I did a year there as a presenter. But my local rector, who runs the Anglican area can’t use me, because he would get lynched. 

JOHN: Not literally.

MAGGY: Not literally.

JOHN: So you are only really recognised as a proper person by the Methodists?

MAGGY: I’m not really recognised by them, because I can’t do communion for them. I just showed up, lay on my face on the floor in my white robe and got my hands and brow anointed.

JOHN: Ooh! A white robe. Sounds kinda Druidy.

MAGGY: I COULD be Druidy. The wonderful thing is, if you do this mysticism, this direct experience of what you perceive to be the divine, you can converse with anyone of any faith and none – And that’s what it’s about.

Maggy’s first book – about a different type of journey

JOHN: You have written seventeen books, mostly about religion and spirituality.

MAGGY: I’m writing a new book at the moment: Kabbalah and Healing. I have to deliver it to the publisher by the end of September; published the beginning of next year.

JOHN: I suppose we should mention you doing stand-up comedy as, supposedly, that is the bloody reason why we are sitting here chatting in the first place. How did you get into comedy?

MAGGY: I do spiritual workshops and events and things like that to make a living. People kept saying to me: “You’re very funny; you should do comedy.”

There was a comedy course in Birmingham half a mile from me that cost £50. I went along and I was the oldest person by 35 years. At the end, there was a showcase and, a week later, I was asked to back Hal Cruttenden on an Edinburgh Fringe preview at Kings Heath in Birmingham.

I started doing unpaid gigs after that. But then I moved to Devon. Six months later, I got cancer – non-Hodgkin lymphoma. That was a massive Road to Damascus healing journey too.

JOHN: Edinburgh Fringe?

MAGGY: I did one Edinburgh run in 2014 when I had only been performing comedy for 18 months and I had the cancer at the time. I went to Edinburgh as a bucket list thing. I had to rest all day, do my hour at night, then go back and rest. So I didn’t really get the Edinburgh experience at all.

JOHN: Will you go again?

MAGGY: At the moment, I am trying to get together four priests including me to go to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 – There’s Ravi Holy, a rector in Canterbury; Kate Bruce, who’s chaplain to the RAF at Brize Norton; and Mark Townsend, who’s an ex-Anglican but still a vicar who is a magician.

Maggy performed at the Monkey Business comedy club in London earlier this month

JOHN: So where else do you go from here? Another Road to Damascus?

MAGGY: I have no idea where I go from here. I basically thought: I will give the comedy five years and see what happens. That is almost up now.

I don’t know where I’m going.

I am writing the book; I am doing spiritual workshops; I am pottering along quite happily in comedy.

And I am happy.

I am incredibly happy. 

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The Maggy Whitehouse Experiences – the stand-up comic who is also a vicar

Maggie says: “Most of the congregation are sheep… Literally”

Maggy Whitehouse bills herself as a “Maverick priest, comedian and author who believes in an All-Inclusive Loving Beingness that also kicks ass.”

 So, obviously, I wanted to talk to her.

So, obviously, we did – at Paddington station – when she was in London.

So we were, obviously, supposed to be talking about comedy but we ended up, obviously, talking about religion…

…and, no, she is not related to Mary Whitehouse…


JOHN: I tend to ramble when I chat to people..

MAGGY: I love rambling. Going off in different directions. Most of the congregation are sheep.

JOHN: Be careful what you get quoted saying!

MAGGY: No. Literally. I sometimes go out and practise a sermon at night, when I’m putting the chickens to bed. I will be in the paddock sermonising out loud and I will turn round and 30 pairs of sheep eyes are staring at me, from the field behind.

JOHN: You live a rural life on Dartmoor. Are you from there?

MAGGY: No. Harborne in Birmingham.

JOHN: And you were a producer for Carlton TV.

MAGGY: I did a couple of documentaries on China in the 1980s, because my dad was a railway expert and used to write books about steam engines. He founded the Birmingham Railway Museum. He went in to China in 1976 – as soon as it opened up – with my brother. After three or four years, my brother decided to get married. My father had no-one else to travel with, so he took me to China.

Suzi Quatro, Vince Hill and Caesarian scar sightings

I was already working as a radio presenter with Radio WM in Birmingham, then I moved over to BBC TV – Pebble Mill at One – as a producer. I joined them three months before they closed. Then I moved to Carlton TV and a terrible lunchtime show called Gas Street. It had Suzi Quatro and Vince Hill as presenters. That was a marriage made in Hell. Suzi was great fun: she used to show us her Caesarian scar and things like that.

JOHN: You met loads of famous people.

MAGGY: Yes. This was back in the politically incorrect days. I met Rolf Harris and he was disgusting.

JOHN: He had a reputation, back then, as a groper.

MAGGY: He used to push himself up against you and put his hands behind you and go “Woo-wugh-wugh-woo-wugh-wugh” like his wobbly board thing. Fortunately I was too old for Jimmy Savile. I just knew he was vile; he made my skin crawl.

JOHN: Steam engines got you into TV…

MAGGY: Yes. My dad got a commission to write a book on steam engines in China but they wanted a real coffee table book – not just all about the engines; more about travel. I had been travelling with him for six years by then – we went out every summer – so I wrote the book and he took the pictures.

Then I did two TV documentaries on steam engines in China and got lots of marriage proposals but Tiananmen Square happened and all future travel in China went out the window. And I had also met my first husband, Henry. He was a sound recordist. We got married and he was diagnosed with terminal cancer six months later – two months after Tiananmen Square – and by February the following year he was dead. So I lost husband and career within a year, which was a bit…

JOHN: Was this when you had a Road to Damascus and decided to become a vicar?

MAGGY: No. But I lost my faith then, really. I had been an armchair Christian. I just showed up at church occasionally at Christmas.

My husband Henry had been an atheist and, on his deathbed, the Catholic hospital chaplain said: “I’m sorry, my dear, but, if he’s an atheist who does not believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ, then he cannot go to heaven.”

THAT was a Road to Damascus moment, because I just thought: But that is wrong! Henry was a better person than I. He was kinder than I. He was far less of a trollop than I had ever been. I just thought: No! No! And I could not get a funeral for him that would reflect a little bit of faith. 

It had to be Church of England or Humanist back then and my family and his family would not go for Humanist so, basically, I walked up the aisle behind my young husband’s coffin hearing him damned to Hell. And I was thinking: This isn’t right! This isn’t right!

Most people might go into Atheism from that, but I went crazy and went into New Age – Buddhism and chakras and healing and that sort of thing.

JOHN: Kabbalah?

MAGGY: That came later.

JOHN: Did the New Age stuff help you?

MAGGY: Yes, because I learned about all sorts of alternative things and Healing was very interesting at this point.

Maggy’s business card (NOTE: Terms & conditions apply)

After a few years, I realised I was still FURIOUS with Christianity. The whole idea that, if you didn’t believe in Jesus, you didn’t go to heaven. And all the power and corruption which everybody alerts me to and I know about… But I realised what I had done was I had stuck all this in a nasty heap in the corner, put a nice pink blanket over it and covered it in tea lights and crystals and I was pretending it didn’t exist. I realised I was going to have to deal with it.

I also started having the opportunity to do funerals for people.

JOHN: You were a multi-faith funeral giver?

MAGGY: Sort of. A sort of self-taught one. I found a guy in London who taught me.

JOHN: Funerals? What needs teaching?

MAGGY: You have to be taught what not to say and how to deal with dead bodies and bereaved people. You are quite often going to be there when they are dying. I ended up being a hospice chaplain.

So I started putting myself around as a funeral person in London, where the work was. And I went to university to learn New Testament Greek because I thought: If I can read the New Testament in Greek, I might actually understand what this guy Jesus was on about and not have to rely on other people’s translations.

However, it turns out there are 32,000 versions of the New Testament in Greek.

JOHN: Not literally 32,000…

MAGGY: Yes, literally. Most of them are fragments. Only about 500 are full ones. But they are quite dramatically different.

JOHN: Are they all translated from the Aramaic or something?

MAGGY: No, they’re just different ways they wrote it down because, in those days, if somebody had written down one of the Gospels and wanted to copy it out, they would read it out loud and people would copy it down and they would make mistakes. 

JOHN: I remember reading or hearing somewhere that, in the original language, there is no definite or indefinite article. 

MAGGY: That’s right.

JOHN: So the phrase ‘Son of God’ does not necessarily mean THE Son of God, it can equally mean A Son of God. And we are all Sons (or Daughters) of God.

MAGGY: Yes. We are all children of God… and Christ is not Jesus’ surname… The Christ exists independently of Jesus.

JOHN: In the original, no-one was saying he was The Christ. They were saying he was a Son of God: he was a good man. The Moslems believe in Jesus as a prophet, don’t they?

MAGGY: Yes. In fact, he is mentioned in the Koran more than Mohammed is.

A sphere representing the Left Eye of God – inside the Cao Dai Tây Ninh Holy See in Vietnam.  (Photograph by Ernie Lo)

JOHN: The Cao Dai religion in Vietnam reveres Confucius, Jesus and Victor Hugo… I think because the French civil servant who created the religion rather liked the works of Victor Hugo.

MAGGY: Well, you should see my altar at home. It has Isis, Mary & Joseph and…

JOHN: Isis as opposed to ISIS

MAGGY: Yes. One of my friends Christened his daughter Isis eight years ago. It is a problem now…

(… CONTINUED HERE …)

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Why has comedian Akin Omobitan started a podcast called IT DIES HERE?

JOHN: So you have started a podcast. Why not do a blog? – Or is that too old-fashioned?

AKIN: I did do a blog back in the day and someone did once call me a blogger and I really didn’t know how to take that.

JOHN: Are you sure it was a blogger he called you?

AKIN: Yes. You have a blog. How do you describe yourself?

JOHN: The former John Fleming. 

AKIN: I used to blog back in 2004. I had wanted to do a podcast for ages but never had an idea I thought would be ‘for people’. 

JOHN: And now you have. Why is it called It Dies Here?

AKIN: It is pretty much a celebration of idiocy, calamity, regret, stupidity, misfortune, mishaps. So, each week, I have a different guest and they bring a story, a situation or an event which plays in circles in their head because, in hindsight, they now know how they could have handled it differently and better. So, instead of it living in their head, they bring it to the podcast and it can die.

JOHN: Sounds like online therapy.

A couple of people have said: “Oh wow! This is like therapy!

AKIN: A couple of people have come on and said: Oh wow! This is like therapy! but none of them has agreed to pay for my services yet.

JOHN: Do you have a couch to lie on?

AKIN: I do. But, if I invited people to my home to lie on a couch, it might just lead to misinterpretations.

JOHN: People might queue.

AKIN: Well, since releasing the trailer and putting Episodes 1 and 2 online, people have got in touch with me asking to be on the podcast.

JOHN: Do you edit it?”

AKIN: No. Because of the time it takes. And because I think it’s good for the listener to get the full conversation.

JOHN: Are the guests all comedians?

AKIN: No. Coming up, we have a couple of comedians, a financial journalist, a DJ and a TV presenter.

JOHN: Despite having co-hosted 101 Grouchy Club podcasts, I am not really a podcast listener. I have a feeling there’s something else I could do – like watch two-thirds of an old British comedy movie on TV.

AKIN: Or you could listen to a podcast and hear about the demise of an individual who started his own business, was offered millions for it and a job in Silicon Valley and all of that crumbled.

JOHN: But will it have knob gags? Anyway… where is this new weekly podcast leading? To a ‘proper’ broadcast radio show?

AKIN: I don’t know. It’s a different way of expressing yourself creatively. I used to write; that was one method. Doing stand-up comedy is another method. I MC shows as well; that’s different. And the podcast is such a different platform.

JOHN: How?

AKIN: With a lot of my stand-up, it is scripted. I may go off on tangents and play around a bit, but the majority of it is premeditated… When you are MCing, you can have a chat with the audience, but there are lots of different people and you are not really having a conversation with them; you are just trying to make the room fizz… When you do a podcast, you sit one-on-one with someone and have a good in-depth conversation for around 45 minutes.

JOHN: I find listening to what people say is over-rated.

“…I had things which ran around in MY head…”

AKIN: Part of what inspired…

JOHN: What?

AKIN: Part of what inspired the podcast is that I had things which ran around in MY head much longer than they should have… You know when you are a teenager and you are just very broody and moody and miserable? And that can go from adolescence into adulthood. Break-ups, different careers, failures. I was fired from jobs on a number of occasions. There were lots of things I had to let go of and, in letting go of them, I realised that I myself was the main reason I was not happy.

When I realised that and took a bit more control of my own happiness, I became a happier, nicer person.

And, because I had this reference point of me being a moody, miserable, self-indulgent person, I never wanted to be that person again. It inspired me to drift away from that aspect of my personality and more towards embracing the good things of life.

JOHN: You are a Christian. Did you go through a period in your teens of not being a Christian?

AKIN: I wouldn’t describe myself as re-born. I think a big part of it, actually, is that, when you grow up in a Christian household, there are a lot of beliefs and belief systems which you adopt without really making a choice. I guess part of my ‘liberation’ was stepping away from a lot of things. 

I guess I stepped away from a lot of the formalities of Christianity and the closeness I had with my parents. I quit my job. A lot of things: friendships, relationships, even myself. Lots of things I just stepped away from entirely.

Akin will be appearing with Lew Fitz at the Edinburgh Fesival Fringe this August

And then, one-by-one, I started re-connecting to all of these things, but under my terms. My relationship with my family is great, but I no longer feel the need to pander to my parents’ wishes for my life. I have tailored my friendship circles, so it is people who I genuinely want to be friends with, as opposed to people who I have just known for a long time.

Even with my Faith, I would say I am a lot more liberal in my views and outlooks. I guess there are different ideals and morals and stuff which I agree with. I just connect with things very differently. I guess there’s just a certain amount of freedom now.

JOHN: So you are more liberal in accepting other people’s ideas and beliefs?

AKIN: Definitely. I would always have described myself as liberal but I think, until you step away from your ideas then re-connect to them as you want, you are not really living your Truth.

When I decided who I wanted to be and who I wanted to connect with, I then started thinking: Why do I?

So, as opposed to Oh! I just love everyone, man! I then started thinking Why do I believe that?

I guess a lot of my beliefs and ideologies now are bounded more in me personally, not just: Oh. Because I’m a Christian, this is why I love everyone… or Because I’m a black person, this is why I behave this way. I just separated myself from a lot of parts of my identity and found a way of re-connecting… Yeah…

JOHN: Yeah.

AKIN: Maybe that sounds a bit hippyish and… Yeah…

JOHN: Yeah.

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Paul Kerensa: an upstanding 50/50 kneel-down stand-up comic and writer

Paul Kerensa - in a Christmas cracker of a comedy show

A Christmas cracker of a show new to London

“I’ve forgotten why we’re meeting up,” I told comedian Paul Kerensa this afternoon. “I find over-research can be very over-rated.”

“This coming Monday,” he reminded me, “I’m at the Leicester Square Theatre with a Christmas show – Kerensa’s Christmas Cracker – A Centrepoint Fundraiser. It has some carols, Bec Hill, Paul Tonkinson, Rob Thomas and a magician called Wayne The Weird – his real name is Wayne Shakespeare – I keep telling him he should just use his real name.”

All proceeds go to the Centrepoint Christmas homeless charity.

“I’ve been doing these package shows all through December,” he explained, “I’ve done this show about eight years now but never done it in central London before. I normally call it Comedians and Carols but, in London, I didn’t want to step on the toes of Robin Ince’s Lessons and Carols For Godless People.”

“It’s been getting audiences?” I asked.

“Last week in Exeter, we played to 2,000 people at a modern-built church place. And, in Durham, we played to about 1,500 at the Gala Theatre.”

Paul has been performing stand-up comedy for 15 years.

“I tried giving it up about six years ago,” he told me, “but that only lasted about 10 days.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I thought I had got into stand-up to be a writer and I thought: The writing is working out. I will stop all this trudging across this fine land of ours. I love doing the gigs, but the driving is a lot of… So I tried to give up the stand-up and that lasted about a week-and-a-half but I got the sweats and needed to go and do a gig again. So, ever since then, I’ve done about three gigs a week – because I have to. It’s a drug. I love it and it’s just brilliant fun.”

“But you had originally,” I said, “gone into stand-up to become a writer?”

Paul Kerensa’s book - confessions of a kneel-down stand-up

Paul’s book as a kneel-down stand-up

“Well, I had thought I did, but now I know I didn’t. Now I know I went into it because I need to get laughs. Once you’ve had the experience, it’s difficult to not keep doing it.”

As Paul said, the writing HAS been working out for him. He wrote for the Miranda TV sitcom and writes for Lee Mack’s Not Going Out sitcom. His work has won awards from the Royal Television Society, the Rose d’Or and the British Comedy Awards.

I asked: “Are the stand-up and the writing fairly equally balanced?”

“Last year’s tax return,” he told me, “was within £10 between writing and performing. And I’m starting a podcast soon. I’ve got a few interviews recorded, which I’ll put out in the New Year. Just little segments like overheard conversations.”

“Why do a podcast?” I asked.

“Because I’m meeting lots of interesting people. I’m doing lots of BBC Radio 2 things with Chris Evans – I do the Pause For Thought spot on his Breakfast Show and I’ve been writing TFI Friday (on Channel 4 TV) for the last six weeks.”

Pause For Thought?” I asked.

“They do it every day Monday to Friday,” Paul explained. “The Reverend Richard Coles does it; a few bishops; a few Imams; and the occasional comedian like me. This Thursday, I’m doing one about my kids’ school nativity play.”

“And you do that spot because you are a Christian?”

“Yes.”

Paul Kerensa - amid the Ho Ho Ho and the sign of the cross

Paul Kerensa this afternoon – a bit of a Ho Ho and maybe the sign of the cross if you spot it

“That’s not common among comedians,” I said.

“I do a lot of gigs in churches,” said Paul, “because they have a ready-made audience. But the trouble is how do you have a foot in that camp and a foot in the mainstream comedy circuit? The problem is I don’t think being a Christian is that funny. It’s maybe funny to laugh at but not with. How do you make it funny? That’s the problem, really.”

“And, if you even mention it,” I said, “it might sound as if you’re proselytising.”

“Exactly. I think you can do the atheist stance on stage and people will go Yes!! but, if you did it from the other perspective, it would sound proselytising.”

“And you have to be squeaky clean?” I asked.

“Don’t have to be,” said Paul. “Depends on the venue. Depends who’s booked you.”

“Is there a church circuit?” I asked.

“I don’t think there’s a circuit as such, but I do 90 minute shows in churches to 200 people and sell a few books. The last church gig I did was two nights ago and, at the end of it, I had three different people from other churches come up to me and say: We’re from the church down the road. Can we have your card? Come and do a show for us. That doesn’t happen at most comedy club gigs – that you can get three new gigs from one gig.”

“It’s horses for courses. The way comedy has gone… If I had said to my mum 15 years ago Name me a comedian, she’d probably have gone Billy Connolly and Eddie Izzard. Now, she could probably name me 50 comedians. There’s a comedian for everyone. Certainly ten years ago, a lot of churchy folk would have gone: Oh, I don’t like comedy. It’s a little bit, y’know… not for me. Now there’s something for everyone; comedy’s for everyone. A lot of modern churches nowadays: they’ve got the stage, the lights, the mic, the refreshments – they’re made for it.”

“With all this radio and TV writing,” I said. “I still don’t really understand the attraction of standing in a room above a pub performing to a relatively small number of people.”

Paul Kerensa’s advice on how to be a Blibluffer

His book advises how to be a Bibluffer

“Writing doesn’t give me the same sort of reward,” explained Paul. “Hearing Lee Mack get a laugh for something eight months after I’ve written it is not the same – and forgetting if I even wrote that bit or he wrote it… It’s not the same as getting the instant kick of a laugh in a club. Also, writing doesn’t pay what it could do and I have a family to feed – a wife and two kids.”

“Is your wife in the business?” I asked.

“No. She just pushes me out the door and says: Go and do a gig. Get the jokes off your chest and don’t do them in the house.”

“You have two kids?” I asked.

“My 2-year-old daughter,” said Paul, “is showing particular signs of being a good comedy audience member. My son does the jokes and she does the laughing.

“My son is 5 now. He’s just started school and is showing good signs of being a comedian. In a true show of comic timing, yesterday at school he was awarded a perfect attendance record certificate… but he wasn’t there to collect it because he was off ill.”

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Pit bull dog attacks Calvin Wynter, theatre producer, in New York City

Calvin Wynter wearing a yellow rubber glove this morning

Calvin Wynter wearing a yellow rubber glove this morning

This morning, I Skyped theatre producer Calvin Wynter in New York City. He used to be an equity trader on Wall Street. We had not chatted for a while. I thought it would be interesting to hear how the comedy business is going in New York.

As is often the case, the conversation got sidetracked.

He had suggested I Skype him at 11.30am, UK time, so I did.

“It’s 6.30am in the morning in New York,” I said.

“I’m up at 6.00am five days of the week,” he told me, “and 4.00am on two days.”

“Why?” I asked.

“This time last year, I went to Vipassana, a Buddhist retreat. We don’t burn incense, we don’t wear flowers, we don’t wear diapers; we just sit in our regular clothes. If you can do the lotus position, fantastic. If you can’t, you sit in a chair.”

“You’re wearing a yellow rubber glove and a sling round your neck,” I observed.

“This is me after wrist and arm surgery.”

“Why?”

“Between Wall Street and now, I spent way too much time on the computer and so I didn’t get carpal tunnel syndrome but I got some sort of pinched nerves. I ended up in hospital last year and a neurosurgeon noticed something, asked me to do a few things and said: Do you need an orthopaed referral? I said: No, as it happens, when I was attacked by the pit-bull, I got a… because, when you get your hands chewed on, they either call in a plastic surgeon or an orth and when you have your hands and leg and thigh bit away – like a 3 or 4 inch piece of my thigh was bitten away, the fat and skin…

“So I told him this and he then brought in a specialist. They did the test and then they ordered me a brace for a month but I went back and said: Look, you give the brace to most people because most people are afraid to go into surgery. You do it for them, they get a little better, it gives you time for them to get to trust you and then you do the surgery. He said: Yes. So I said: Just do the fucking surgery. And, in less than a week, he did the surgery.”

“I think,” I said. “I missed a link there. It was the bit where you said: when I was attacked by the pit-bull.”

“You didn’t know about that?”

“No. I have a shit memory, but even I would have remembered that.”

“OK. Well, this time last year – end of August, beginning of September – at the Vipassana retreat, I decided: Let’s lose a little weight. They feed you three meals a day. You got a choice of vegan and/or vegetarian and they’re delicious. You’re not starving. But I decided, because I was 245 lbs… I went through the three meals and measured out what was the amount of food you’re supposed to eat at the size I wanted to be. And I did hours and hours of walking. You’re in the country: streams, lakes, trees, all that stuff. And you’re doing chores when you’re not doing ten hours a day of meditation. After ten days, I lost 10 lbs. Then I lost another 10 lbs.

“So I lose all this weight, I’m dehydrated and I get the equivalent of the worst migraine I’ve ever had and I’ve never had a migraine – or maybe I’ve got a brain aneurism. So I’m rushed to the hospital. They perform every test possible and send me home thinking it’s a migraine and give me a strong Tylenol.

“When I call my doctor, she says: No, no. I want you to get some Aceterin. The next day, it gets really bad. So I think: If two pills are good, I’m gonna take four. Then six. I overdose. I start hallucinating. I mean, you know like Fantasia? I see a musical that I will create one day that will become the gold standard of musicals.

“But, in New York City, you never tell the doctors in the emergency room that you are hallucinating because they will put you on the psych ward and hold you for 72 hours. And, if they don’t have a psych ward, they will transfer you to one and the No 1 psych ward they like to transfer you to is Bellevue which is essentially like Bedlam in the UK.

“I remember a comedian I knew who won the big award in Edinburgh – he went to the British equivalent because he wrote his name in faeces on his wall. You know who I’m talking about.

“Anyway, I’m back in hospital again. They admit me. For six hours I tell them: I will NOT take any opiates. I was in so much pain they wanted to give me morphine and codeine. Not oxy cotton. No, they were going for like the strongest friggin’ pain pills they could give me. Finally, after six hours, I am told: We will have you committed if you don’t take it, because – you don’t know this, but – you are curled up in a ball in the corner of the bed. You are sweating profusely, you’re shaking, you’re mumbling and, every once in a while, you scream out so loud we can hear you down the hall.”

“And so…?” I asked.

“So I take the damned opiates,” Calvin told me. “And, after three days of taking them, it did lower the pain, but there was still excruciating pain. In the interim, they find my kidneys are now in renal failure and I had a macro pituitary adenoma. In other words, I had a tumour that was 1 centimetre in diameter at the centre of my head, right about where all the nerve endings are for your eyes, pushing back on my pituitary.

“Day Three of all this, I say: Fuck it! I get consciousness for a moment and I meditate solidly for an hour. You just observe and, for some reason, I kept observing one of my teeth up top and I remembered I was told to have the tooth removed but my insurance would not do an implant. Somewhere along the line, I forgot about that.

“So they remove the tooth and the headache is gone. So now they are working on my kidneys. They changed the meds. After ten days, I lose 10 lbs and I go out. So I had lost 10 lbs there and 20 lbs at the Vipassana retreat.

“Fast forward to May. I walk out of my door, I see a 98 lb woman who I later find out is a 28-year-old from Hawaii, half-Japanese, had never owned a dog before, was in New York City for the first time ever and had rescued this dog which was going to be killed the next day because it was too dangerous. She agreed to have a trainer, spent a lot of time with it before she took it home.

“I see that the dog is acting like an idiot. I make a sharp right turn. I meditate to calm my body so the dog doesn’t sense anything. It’s a pit bull. The dog leaps up. I shoot my left hand to block it.

“My cousin had been the national karate champion before Chuck Norris. My cousin was bodyguard to David Bowie, Mick Jagger right around the time hijackings were happening and celebrities were not able to bring their licensed gun-carrying bodyguards on planes with them.

“So I had lived with my cousin for a month. He had told me: If someone threatens you, you can talk to them for a while – you’re good at that – then you can run like the wind and very few people can catch you. The only time you need to fight is if the son-of-a-bitch catches you, which means he has nothing but ill-intent. Which means you have to kill him. One fast fell swoop. I’m going to teach you to kill people and, in the last week, I’m going to teach you how to kill dogs. With dogs, you break their nose; you jam it into their head; it’s a matter of seconds: they’re dead on the floor.

“Thirty years ago, pit bulls were not a problem. People owned German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers. They didn’t have pit bulls. A pit bull’s entire skull is like a biker’s helmet. You can’t break its nose and shove it into its skull.  The one thing you’re supposed to do with pit bulls is you grab them by the balls and you swing them in the air and neuter them. You bang ‘em in the eye, go straight for their balls, lift them and fucking castrate them right then and there. They will be in so much pain, bleeding profusely and you can get away.

“But I had a bitch… a female dog, right? I get a young female dog. So she gets my arm. Thank god I remember: Use the middle finger and the pointer finger of your hand. So I hit her in the eyeballs. She releases. The other thing my cousin had told me was: Run into traffic when you’re attacked by a dog. You will be able to dodge the cars; the dog will get hit.

“I get one lane out into six lanes of traffic and I, for some reason, take a second to look back. The traffic stops. The dog is coming after me. I get to the other side of the boulevard. As I’m putting my left leg onto the kerb, the dog leaps up, was going for my balls but grabs my upper thigh and was about to clamp in for the arteries, the bones and the muscles. Now I’ve got both hands bleeding, several major lacerations on my left hand, which is my dominant hand though I write with my right hand. I use both hands because both hands are free because she’s on my thigh. I blind her in the right eye, I partially blind her in the left.”

“Literally blind her?” I ask.

“Literally. I crack the right eyeball and there’s ooze coming out. I bang the left one, so it’s partially damaged. I break her right leg. And I take all of my body weight, holding my left arm with my right hand so it has maximum power, and I lunge dead-centre at her spine. I damage the spine. She falls to the ground. She has my blood all over her.”

“Now,” I said, “it’s almost 7.30am in New York. Where are you off to now?”

Calvin Wynter: no hair, but a big Fringe

Calvin Wynter: no hair, but big on the Fringe theatre scene

“I’m headed off right now,” Calvin told me, “to have my teeth cleaned and also they did a biopsy on my jawbone. They performed dental surgery, removed the lesion and put it in for biopsy research. They called me on Friday which means I think I may have cancer. I don’t know. So far, everything that’s thought to have been cancerous was not – like the polyps I got from my colonoscopy. I had three polyps. No cancer. So who knows? Maybe the third time isn’t so good but, y’know look – I’ve had a shaved head before. I can have a shaved head again. I’m still Episcopalian, which is like your Church of England, but my philosophy is Buddhist which is essentially: What do we seek? Happiness. What is pain and sorrow? The route to happiness.”

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One woman’s epiphany in Edinburgh

Edinburgh from Blackford Hill

Yesterday’s blog had a reaction from Sue Blackwell in Edinburgh, who occasionally crops up in these blogs.

I have no idea idea why she had this reaction. Perhaps it was because I mentioned my ‘inherent nihilism’.

For whatever reason, this is what she wrote:


Your blog triggered a memory of something that occurred many years ago now, when I was in my late thirties. I was drying some cutlery at the time.

Possibly I was over-tired, overstressed, I don’t have any explanation for it.

It was a state of mind that is sometimes reached – so I understand – by taking mind-altering drugs, which I had not done.

I don’t have a belief in God or any sort of higher being although, in my earlier years, there was an urge to question the reason for our existence – which took me down many avenues of exploration.

Not so today nor for many, many years now.

But in that moment or moments – I have no recall of how long it lasted – it was as though thought had stopped and this other state of consciousness came into play. I was aware of overwhelming joy, love and an awareness of order in our existence.

This order was incredibly beautiful, and it was as though a curtain had been drawn back and I understood all things. It was an Aaah! Now I understand! moment.

I have no recall of what I understood or experienced, because thought was not there.

As thought returned, this other state receded until it was no more.

I didn’t tell anyone about what had occurred because, certainly for the next three weeks or so, I found it too overwhelming to speak about.

What a lot of old bollocks this sounds now, but there is no denying that it happened.

I was not depressed at the time and have no explanation for it.

Words could not capture what had happened, so there was no way of communicating it with anyone else.

When I eventually did talk about it with one or two people it moved me to tears each time.

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