Category Archives: Sociology

Michael Livesley: The Bonzo Dog’s Viv Stanshall & understanding masculinity

Michael Livesley has been reviving the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Vivian Stanshall’s iconic show Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End  for nine years with sundry Stanshall-related co-stars.

Now, he is doing two final shows – on December 7th (next Friday) at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and on December 12th at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool.

The Daily Telegraph described the show as “a combination of Downton Abbey and Gormenghast set to music”.

We had a chat in a Wetherspoons pub in London.

Why is he doing two more shows? 

Why is he stopping?


MICHAEL: I can’t do any more. Nine years of having someone else in yer head is enough – especially when that person is Vivian Stanshall.

Viv Stanshall: the original Sir Henry

It’s a lot of work and it has kicked open a lot of doors for me and it’s great fun but it’s enough. We did the album with Rick Wakeman and Neil Innes. We did the Bristol Old Vic with Stephen Fry. We’ve done the London Palladium, the Glastonbury Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. We’ve done the Millenium/O2 Dome in London. A lot of other stuff. And we will be filming this one at the Bloomsbury Theatre for a Sky Arts thing.

JOHN: So why?

MICHAEL: In March this year, I was living in a village between Winchester and Andover in Hampshire – which is where we recorded the album in the shed – and it was great. But ultimately you run out of road in these places. There was nothing happening, so it was time to move back to Liverpool and I thought: Let’s put something in the work diary – and it’s the 40th anniversary of Sir Henry.

JOHN: And what happens after these two shows?

MICHAEL: There’s a Rodney Slater’s Parrots gig at the Zanzibar Club in Liverpool on 14th December. And I am doing the Edinburgh Fringe myself next year.

JOHN: Doing what?

MICHAEL: A show called Half the Man because I’ve lost five stone in three months and I intend to be half the man by the time that happens and my stand-up, when I do it, is all about my observations of being brought up by a single mother and a grandmother: the challenges of establishing your manhood within that female environment.

That’s why I hang out in Wetherspoons: so I can hang out amongst real men. These places are almost like social breweries, because they filter out the impurities in society like me and give us somewhere to reside for a while. It’s a place that’s essentially filled with wounded gazelles: divorced men, single men, who salt their wounds with warm lager. I fit right in here.

JOHN: By drinking?

Michael, in Wetherspoons, has given up drink

MICHAEL:  I am treating myself to beer today because it was my birthday last week. But, other than this, I’ve not drunk beer since August.

JOHN: And you are giving up Sir Henry too…

MICHAEL: I’m not denigrating it in any way – it’s fucking genius, but it’s not mine. It’s a bit of imposter syndrome. But, paradoxically, doing it has enabled me to find my own voice in a strange way: it gave me the vehicle to get on stage in front of people.

I sort of made a compromise when I was 16 to be a musician rather than a performer and this gave me the excuse to take it on. That’s partly what I want to explore with Half The Man. There’s a conversation to be had about what masculinity is and isn’t.

JOHN: You are gonna talk about ‘Northern folk’?

MICHAEL: Well, talk about growing up in the 1980s, growing up in the North without a dad in a very small village in Lancashire where it was all Catholic and shit… it was no picnic… Some people have a really tough life. This was NOT a really tough life.

JOHN: But…?

MICHAEL: But because me mum weren’t married, it used to rile the teachers in this Catholic school. Our side of the street were Catholic and the other side were Protestant; and we’re only talking about the 1980s. I remember standing in the front room with the curtains shut when the Protestants were on their Walk.

JOHN: The Catholics had a walk too?

MICHAEL: It was kind of like a Virgin Mary thing with a cart with stuff on it.

The teachers at my school had also taught me mum and all me uncles and aunties. I would get a school book and there would be me auntie’s name in it from 30 years back. The teachers were all long past retirement. There was a guy who taught me in the 1980s and he had been in the First World War! Fuck knows how old he was! He had a yellow streak in his hair because he always had a fag in his mouth. He reeked of whisky and had yellow teeth and used to beat the shit out of us.

I saw him take a little girl who sat next to me out to the front of the class and he pulled her knickers down and bare-bottomed smacked her. She was a 5-year-old! Real men don’t beat children. That ain’t masculine! That’s just complete and utter barbarism.

There is a whole confusion about what masculinity really is. The sort-of imposition of masculinity in those communities was completely at odds with what I believe masculinity is.

There was one murder in the village where I grew up. 

JOHN: How many people in the village?

MICHAEL: About 300 or 400. It was a mining village.

JOHN: What was the murder?

MICHAEL: This guy – Mulligan – murdered his girlfriend in the local woods. His dad was the village wife-beater. This sounds like bullshit but there WAS a village wife-beater. Everyone knew he did it. He was the guy whose wife had a black eye going for the bread on a Sunday morning. Everybody knew it and everybody tolerated it.

My mum used to say that men love women but they don’t like them. That ain’t true in general but in that village – that little place – I think it was.

Anyway, so when Mulligan stood up in court and they asked him why he’d murdered his girlfriend, he said: “I thought that’s what you did.”

That is true.

And you can buy into that, because all he had seen all his life was his dad knocking bloody hell out of his mum.

And that is quite incongruous because, in the world I grew up in, the women were in charge. Everyone colluded in the illusion that men were in charge but they were not and I don’t think that’s a peculiarly Northern industrial thing. I think that goes across the animal kingdom. And the frustration and anger that that situation brings about with the section of the population that are physically stronger is… Well, that’s the kind of world I grew up in. 

When I was 16, I started working in a pub and, on a Sunday morning, they would put trays on the bar with black pudding and tripe and cheese – a peculiarly Northern Catholic thing which I had not been aware of at home, because alcohol played no part in my upbringing. 

Until I started work, I was not aware of 50% of life, because I was brought up in a 100% female household. It was a male thing. On a Sunday, men went to the pub, ate meat and left the women at home.

In my home, we had a half-bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky that me grandad won in the Catholic club in the 1970s that remained untouched until me mum met the man they called Barry and then it went within a week. 

JOHN: The man they called Barry?

MICHAEL: Her boyfriend. My mam met the man they called Barry when I was 13. He was just a fucking alcoholic wanker. 

JOHN: Is he still alive?

MICHAEL: No. Everyone’s dead. That’s the crazy thing about the North. Within about 20 years, every fucker’s dead. There’s no longevity.

JOHN: So this is your next year’s Edinburgh Fringe show – with a few laughs thrown in.

MICHAEL: In one of your blogs, you said every successful Edinburgh comedy show needs a dead dad story!

JOHN: Yes, at about 40 minutes into the hour…

MICHAEL: I’ve got nothing BUT dead dads, not that I’ve ever met me dad.

JOHN: I saw a show the other day and the comic wasn’t good enough to sustain 60 minutes. The show sagged at about 32 minutes and I thought: You need a dead dad story in there…

MICHAEL:  After nine years of doing someone else’s work, you end up with this big backlog of things you wanna say yourself.

JOHN: And you now have nine years’ experience of how to say things.

MICHAEL: Yes. I had no father figure to explain where I should fit in… it’s all that stuff I want to explore… and doing Sir Henry has given me the legs to realise how to do that.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, sectarianism, Sex, Society, Sociology

The Angry Brigade, British anarchists – the real bombers were never arrested?

The Post Office Tower was bombed by The Angry Brigade

London’s Post Office Tower – bombed by The Angry Brigade

Tonight, the new play about 1970s anarchist bombers The Angry Brigade is being premiered at the Bush Theatre in London.

I have always thought it odd that The Angry Brigade are seldom mentioned in social histories of the 1960s and 1970s. They were active around 1969-1972 and the Bomb Squad (now called SO13) was specifically formed to track down The Angry Brigade.

Their targets included banks, embassies, factories, the 1970 Miss World contest (a BBC Outside Broadcast van was bombed) and the homes of judges, police chiefs and government MPs. In 1971, a bomb exploded in the Post Office Tower (now renamed the BT Tower) and two bombs exploded outside Employment Secretary Robert Carr’s house.

Some of the alleged Angry Brigade’s alleged arms

Some of the alleged Angry Brigade’s arms found by the police

I have a friend called Sam Taylor. Well, no, I don’t. I have no friend called Sam Taylor. But let us pretend that is his real name. It is not.

When I mentioned the new play at the Bush Theatre to Sam Taylor, he told me he did not think the play should have been written.

“Why?” I asked him.

“Because,” he told me, “I thought the Angry Brigade were meaningless. I thought they were just a sad little collection of young people who were doing something which was very wrong. They were making the facts fit the plot. They wanted to do something. They were caught up in their own propaganda. These days, the propaganda is political correctness. Back then, it was anarchism. I can only remember being in the same room as them once.”

“With who?” I asked.

The Bush Theatre stage production

The Bush Theatre stage production tonight

“With the four who were convicted. The men I can’t remember at all. I remember one of the girls. They were very unprepossessing young people. I only remember them being in the corner of a room, probably at some meeting about what time we were going to arrive at Covent Garden Market in the morning to pick up the fruit and veg.

“London had had the Vietnam protests and there were a lot of Americans in London at the time. So, from that protest movement grew this anarchist movement and it had its roots in things which are quite acceptable now.”

“You were living in a squat at that time?” I asked.

“No,” said Sam. “The squatting movement was pretty much starting up around then, but we are not squatting. We were renting. We were a collective. It was a very loose group of anarchists, all having different aims. The other collectives were quite well-off. We were probably the poorest. The other collectives were not short of money. We were the only working class people I ever met. In one collective, one of the members was very much into women’s refuges. I remember there was a Food Co-op but also there was an Adventure Playground group. Adventure Playgrounds were thought to be quite revolutionary in their day.

The Angry Brigade logo - whoever they really all were

The Angry Brigade logo – whoever they really all were

“These were not mainstream things in those times and that was the link. That was how I got to be on the fringes of these collectives. We only ever knew them as the name of where they lived. It was a very small, loosely-connected group of collectives and one of them was the Amhurst Road Collective.”

“Which,” I said, “was partly the Angry Brigade.”

“Yes,” said Sam. “But I didn’t know that at the time. The extraordinary thing about the whole of that anarchist movement is how nobody has spoken about it. The big story is the extraordinary loyalty. As far as I know, I never heard that anyone had shopped anyone else. Everyone was being arrested, followed, searched, intimidated, beaten-up…”

“I think,” I said, “that beating-up suspects was standard practice at the time.”

“Yes,” Sam agreed. “The words you did not want to hear were: Come along with me to Barnet police station.”

“Barnet?” I asked.

The offices of Time Out magazine were raided in the search for The Angry Brigade

Time Out magazine’s offices were raided in the police search

“For some reason it was always Barnet police station. We were just hearing: Such-and-such a collective were all taken to Barnet. They were trying to say these people were loosely affiliated but, after people were arrested and released and their names were in the frame, the bombings were still continuing. As far as I know, nobody has ever come clean about what was actually going on and who was running it.

“There was clearly, from what I could see, a lot of coming-and-going between France, Germany and London and the people I met had clearly been very involved in the student revolt in Paris in 1968. I never knew the back story except I knew there were foreign links. The people in these other collectives had links with foreigners and they were going off abroad.

“The other thing I remember is someone called Petra turning up and I was told I had to leave the house I was staying in because Petra was arriving. When I asked about her, everyone closed down and I was even told there were two Petras. I wondered if that was to throw me off the scent. I always wondered if was Petra from the Baader-Meinhof group.”

Part Schelm of Baader-Meinhof

Petra Schelm of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang

(In May 1970, Petra Schelm travelled with other members of Baader-Meinhof to Jordan where they were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organisation in urban guerrilla warfare. On 15 July 1971, after a car chase in Hamburg, Petra fired a handgun at police. The police returned fire, allegedly with a submachine gun. However, a closeup photograph of her body taken at the scene immediately after her death shows a single gunshot wound through the eye.)

“I don’t know if there was a link with the Baader-Meinhof group,” Sam told me, “because nobody has ever come out and spoken about any links between all those groups. There were lots and lots of raids going on and the one thing they were always after was address books.

“At the time, my collective were simply paranoid about smoking dope. We knew we were being watched, but we thought it was the Drugs Squad. I took it all with a pinch of salt. But then we heard Amhurst Road mentioned in the news and we saw the names and we realised it was that collective. And all these people were being arrested and taken to Barnet police station. We were surprised and shocked and moved out very quickly.

“I went to stay on people’s floors within London. They were regarded as safe houses; I don’t know why. I don’t know why they were safe when everyone else was being picked up. Then I worked under another name in London and then I left London to work in the West Country.

At the Angry Brigade trial, the jury was bette for their political beliefs

Angry Brigade trial jury was vetted for their political beliefs

“It seemed to me from what I read and heard that they were framed by the police, that the evidence was planted on them. Clearly they were involved in it – but it may simply have been that they were the printing press.”

“Supposedly,” I said, “the Rolling Stones’ arrest involved drugs being planted on them. They were guilty as hell, but the police planted the drugs to get an arrest.”

“Exactly,” said Sam. “That seemed to be accepted at the time. What came out at the trial was that they seemed to have believed the… I don’t know much about the others. I only know about the four. I didn’t really follow it at the time… But, as far as I know, no-one was ever arrested successfully for placing the bombs. They were charged with conspiracy. No people – because it seemed there were many more than just one person – were actually successfully arrested or prosecuted for planting the bombs.”

“There were an awful lot of bombs going off,” I said to Sam.

“Yes,” he agreed. “And the press were not printing them all. There were a great many more bombs than were publicised. I found that out retrospectively. And what happened has stayed with me. Even now, I instinctively don’t like having my picture taken.”

There is a trailer on YouTube for the Bush Theatre play.

and there is a 72-minute documentary about The Angry Brigade on YouTube. I can’t guarantee the facts are true.

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Filed under Anarchy, Sociology, Terrorism, UK

Other people’s lives partly overheard

Two men talk by a bus stop in Watford yesterday

Two men talk by a Watford bus stop yesterday

Not that I would like you to think I am obsessed with blogging, but…

… occasionally, I hear things which sound like they might fit into a blog…

… and they almost never do.

I do not write them down. I text them to myself.

It is a mild obsession. I can control it.

It does not control me.

At least, I do not think it does.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a train near Hendon, going to St Pancras in London, and, in the next set of seats, four very dull-looking people were talking about their upcoming holidays and other equally (to me) uninteresting things. I was not really listening, but then my ears told my brain that one of their voices had said, in a casual, conversational way:

“That’s really the wrong question. The question is Has God found YOU?

By the time my brain adjusted to listening to them properly, they were talking about hotels.

How did God get into that conversation?

Yesterday, I was waiting at a Watford bus stop (don’t ask) when an ageing hippy type turned up with two Sainsburys shopping bags. I thought he was possibly homeless. He had a long light-brown coat, long greying hair, a long grey beard and a dark grey woollen cap. He looked like some cut-price Gandalf.

Shortly afterwards, a middle-aged black man arrived. They knew each other and started talking.

I reconsidered the first man’s status. He probably was not a tramp, just some left-over hippy from the early 1970s. The black guy looked like he had just come from work.

Again, I was not really listening to them until my ears heard the black man say:

“I was working like a bloody nigger.”

Whaaaat??? my brain told my ears.

Again, by the time my brain had adjusted to listening to the conversation, it was inconsequential. It had just been a casual phrase in a casual conversation.

You can’t really say it was racist: the guy was black and was talking to a white guy. You can’t really say it was offensive: the guy could only offend himself.

But Whaaaat??? my brain thought.

Whaaaat???

It was much like Boxing Day last week.

I was in the shopping centre in Borehamwood on Boxing Day. I had just bought myself  two pints of milk. I like milk.

Two men passed me. One said to the other:

“Your best bet is to put the guy’s body in a freezer and then cut him up later.”

Whaaaat???

That is exactly what he said:

“Your best bet is to put the guy’s body in a freezer and then cut him up later.”

The fascination of other people’s lives, partly overheard.

It is like reading only one paragraph on one page of a 500-page novel.

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Filed under Racism, Sociology

Comedy taboos + How British women react differently in comedy audiences

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London last night

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London last night

All through my adult life, I have had an irritating dry cough. My father had the same cough. Eventually, he had to have polyps on the inside of his throat scraped off. His voice was higher afterwards.

For the last week or so, though, I have had a harder, hacking cough. It happens occasionally when I pick up the tail end of other people’s colds.

Having a hard, hacking cough which occasionally drifts into uncontrollable coughing fits is not ideal if you go to see a live comedy show in a small club. But, last night, I went to London’s West End to see Lewis Schaffer’s Free Until Famous show anyway.

Instead of cough sweets, I took a packet of Werther’s Original butterscotch to suck. They are cheaper. I am a Scot who was brought up among Jews. Remember the Werther’s. They become relevant later.

Lewis Schaffer has performed Free Until Famous at the same venue at least twice a week for who knows how long? Maybe three years. He currently performs it every Tuesday and Wednesday. And now he is also performing a £10 show at the Leicester Square Theatre every Sunday.

He tells me that, bizarrely, the twice-a-week free shows do not seem to be affecting audience figures at his Leicester Square pay show. In fact, numbers at his free shows are down and numbers at his Leicester Square show were high from the start and have not dropped. The Leicester Square show was due to end on April 21st but has now been extended to July 28th.

Lewis Schaffer is also being stalked by a sociologist. He introduced her to his audience last night.

“That’s her in the front row,” he said. “She’s following me around. She got the highest grade you can get for a paper she wrote about me. She got a First. She was looking for something to write. She came to my show and she came to a lot of my shows and I thought she was just obsessed by me – it happens. I’m 56, but I’m in great shape. But she wasn’t obsessed by me; she was writing this paper.”

“What was the paper about?” I asked the girl afterwards.

“Comedy taboos,” she told me.

“Why is Lewis Schaffer a taboo?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I was looking at taboo material first of all and the real taboo he breaks is that he is not really a comedian. The taboo isn’t in the material, it’s in his performance. The idea that he’s performing but it looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I wrote in my paper that he can say anything he wants because he tells his audiences how shit he is, so no-one really takes his comedy seriously.”

“And your sociology degree was in comedy?” I asked.

“No,” she corrected me. “This is an ethnographic study. The study of people-watching.”

“And now you’re planning to do another one?”

Laughter - according to Wikipedia

Open mouthed male laughter – demonstrated by Wikipedia

“On audience participation. I’m focussing mainly on the audience patterns: what they’re doing. I’m not looking at comedy; I’m looking at people’s interactions. Like Lewis said in tonight’s show that people cover their mouths when they laugh. I’ve noticed more women do that than men. I want to find out why that is. It’s a socially-constructed idea.”

“Women do it and men don’t?” I asked.

“Both genders do it, but women do it a hell of a lot more.”

“Is it because an open mouth is sexual in some way?” I asked.

“I think because an open mouth is unattractive,” she replied. “I wonder if it’s the same idea as covering your mouth when you yawn, because we know certain people do that and certain people don’t.”

“But,” I said, “people open their mouths when they smile, which I’ve never understood. You would think baring their teeth would be an aggressive gesture, but smiling is a friendly gesture.”

“I don’t bare mine,” she told me, “because they’re fucking awful.”

“So…” I said, “what’s the most unexpected thing you’ve found about audiences?”

“In couples,” she told me, “if it’s a man and a woman couple together, the woman will look at her partner for the approval of the laughter.”

“She’ll look before she laughs?”

“Yes. She’ll quickly just glance then start laughing. I’ve only seen this reversed in gender once.”

“What happens if it’s a gay couple?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve not seen many gay couples at Lewis’ shows.”

The sociologist doesn’t want me to name her or her college in case someone steals her idea.

The legs of an anonymous sociologist in Soho

The legs of an anonymous sociologist in Soho

“Someone’s going to nick my idea; I know they are,” she told me last night.

“Well,” I said, “all the more reason you should have your name, university’s name and photo in my blog, so you can prove your idea pre-existed on a specific date.”

“No,” she told me. “You can photograph my leg instead. I don’t even want people to know I’m in a blog. I don’t have Facebook, I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have anything. I only have email, which I give to people I know. I don’t want anyone on the internet knowing anything about me unnecessarily. I think the whole thing is fucking weird. The whole idea that something about me can be seen by anyone freaks me the fuck out.”

At this point, I had a coughing fit and took a Werther’s Original.

“Have one,” I offered.

“No,” she said. “My dad’s allergic to them, so I don’t eat them.”

“Not allergic to other butterscotch? Just Werther’s?”

“Just Werther’s.”

“And you don’t eat them either?” I asked.

“If I ate those,” she said, “and I kissed my dad when I see him tomorrow, his face would swell up. He ate one when he was in his thirties. We were in the car and my mum said Have one of these to suck on. First of all his lips swelled up. Then his face swelled up and then his throat closed up. It came on over a period of about two hours.”

“Any other food problems in the family?”

“My aunt used to be so afraid of tomatoes that she would rather have seen a dead animal carcass in her fridge than a half-eaten tomato.”

“Did some traumatic event involving tomatoes happen to her when she was a kid?”

“It just built up. She used to just not eat them and then, gradually, she got more and more scared of them to the point where, if someone was eating a tomato, she would have to leave the room.”

“And she’s still afraid of tomatoes?”

“No. Because once, when she was sunbathing in the garden, lying out flat, my dad sliced up some tomatoes and put them all over her body. So, when she woke up, she was covered in slices of tomatoes. She screamed the place down and shit herself but was absolutely fine about tomatoes after that.”

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Filed under Allergy, Comedy, Health, Sociology