Category Archives: Writing

Njambi McGrath: “I’ve discovered I can do things I never thought I could do…”

Njambi’s book Through The Leopard’s Gaze

JOHN: So, Njambi McGrath, you are very busy at the moment. 

NJAMBI:  Well, lockdown gave me the space to write.

Before that, I was travelling loads to do comedy gigs but all the way through lockdown I didn’t have to travel anywhere so I could literally write all day.

When my first book Through the Leopard’s Gaze was published I had done so much research I didn’t want the richness of what I discovered to be wasted.

So I decided to write my second book last year as fiction and use the research in that. 

I wrote that new book last year and I’m writing another one this year.

Both novels are set in Kenya. I wanted both of them to reflect everything.  The chaos and how people tried to make sense of life before independence and everything.

Njambi at a book signing, with many more still to come…

Last year’s novel is called The Residence of the Ministry of Works. It’s about people living in a compound in Kenya. No-one even knows how they found their way there. Is it a Ministry? No. It was something the British created and, when they left, it… it is like a slum.

When they arrived, the British found systems that were intact and it’s like Lego. If you kick it, then it goes in all directions. The British kicked the existing system and caused chaos.

JOHN: And the new book this year is…?

NJAMBI: Rinsing Mukami’s Soul – it’s more focussed. I think I’m on the final draft now. The ‘Rinsing’ is because of all the things she does and encounters; her soul needs rinsing.

JOHN: So, with the long-drawn-out lockdown, the enforced isolation and the book-writing, have you lost your urge to go on stage and do live stand-up?

NJAMBI: No. It’s like a drug. Every time I’m on stage I am: Oooh! I wanna do this again! I performed at The Comedy Store a couple of weeks ago and a couple of other venues this week. I’ve done enough gigs since lockdown finished to forget how many I’ve done.

JOHN: And you went up to the whittled-down Edinburgh Fringe in August…

NJAMBI: Yes, I was invited to Edinburgh and offered a 98-seater at the Pleasance to do a 3-day run of my show Accidental Coconut, the show I did in 2019. 

JOHN: What was Edinburgh like this year?

NJAMBI: I had very good, full-house audiences. People were hungry to laugh after the lockdown.

The week before that, I had been up to Edinburgh to record my radio show over two nights. The audiences were the same then – amazing. What a way to come out of lockdown hibernation!

The Sunday Times loved Njambi’s new radio show.

JOHN: Your radio show… That’s your BBC Radio 4 series of four, which starts this week?

NJAMBI: Yes, it’s based on Accidental Coconut but it’s called Njambi McGrath: Becoming Njambi. It starts this Wednesday, the 22nd of September, for four weeks at 11.00pm on Wednesdays.

JOHN: Why is it not called Accidental Coconut?

NJAMBI: Because Radio 4 said: “If you use that term on radio, referring to yourself, other people may think it’s OK to use that derogatory term.”

JOHN: Why was it called Accidental Coconut in the first place?

NJAMBI: Because when I had been doing an Edinburgh show in a previous year – African in New York – I said that, when I got to America, I hadn’t been aware of the Black issues there because I was an ‘accidental coconut’ – because, obviously, we don’t learn that history in Kenya.

And then I thought: Oh my God! That’s a really great title! – It reflects exactly what we are. We are not taught about our history.

JOHN: How did black New Yorkers react when you opened your mouth and they realised you were British?

NJAMBI: The first time I was in a lecture hall, I put my hand up and spoke and everybody went: Whooaaaa! How come you’re not speaking with the black people’s accent in America?

JOHN: Did they think either (a) she’s just a foreigner or (b) she’s English so she must be posh? She must know the Queen?

NJAMBI: Well, they were even more confused because I said: “I’m British and I’m also Kenyan”.

JOHN: And their reaction was…?

NJAMBI: Well, after my university days, when Barack Obama was still President, I was in Florida and said, “I’m British and I’m also Kenyan,” and their reaction was “Where is Kenya?”

JOHN: Whaaat?

“I hadn’t been aware of the Black issues there because…”

NJAMBI: I said: “That is where your President is from. And one woman asked: “George W Bush?” 

Everyone around the world was talking about this new American President and she hadn’t even noticed they had got a new president and he was black. If she hadn’t looked so confused, I would have thought it was a joke.

JOHN: You are also performing Accidental Coconut at Soho Theatre in London next month. (4th-9th October) 

NJAMBI: Yes, it actually overlaps with the radio series.

JOHN: And what comes after your Soho Theatre run?

NJAMBI: I’ll be finishing my new book Rinsing Mukami’s Soul and I have a new stage show as well. I was working on a draft of it in early 2020 and was going to take it to Edinburgh that August, but then the pandemic happened and the Fringe didn’t. So it will now be my 2022 show.

JOHN: Titled…?

NJAMBI: Black Black.

JOHN: Why?

NJAMBI: Because, the night before I got married, my mother-in-law came to me and I thought she was going to say something like: “Welcome to my family”. But she whispered to me: “The day I found out that David was marrying a woman from Africa, I was horrified. But at least you’re not black black…”

JOHN: So books, live stage stuff, radio… and a TV series of your first book Through the Leopard’s Gaze…?

NJAMBI: Well, we are waiting on that. You know how long these things take. It was optioned during lockdown.

Njambi and I chatted at London’s Soho Theatre

I have got to a point in my life where I’ve discovered I can do things I never thought I could do.

For a long time, I didn’t think I had the skill. 

I was working in IT; I didn’t think I was good at it. I couldn’t sing. There were so many things I couldn’t do, so I thought I was useless.

Then I discovered I can make people laugh.

Then I discovered I could write.

Oh my God!

Now I’m like a ferret on a treadmill because I want to write as many shows as possible because I discovered I can actually do something when I thought I could do nothing. So I have been doing all these things as well as co-writing a TV sitcom and I’ve been writing some drama as well…

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Filed under Comedy, Performance, Writing

You will not be paid for what you write “of course”… a not abnormal phone call

Mad inventor and Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award designer John Ward has a varied life. For the last six years, as well as all his other surreal duties, he has written a weekly Ward’s World column of around 1,200 words for the Spalding Guardian newspaper.

John Ward toiling over his weekly Ward’s World column for the Spalding Guardian…

Last week, his column was about telephone scammers.

Today, I got an email from John about reaction to that column:


Following on from my Ward’s World column last week about scammers ringing to tell people that their internet will be closed in 24 hours unless… blah… blah… “but give me your card details and I can sort it” tosh… I have heard of two ‘near misses’ and one who sadly fell for it – all being elderly, which comes as no surprise I suppose.

But the best reaction so far is…

My phone rings on Monday morning…

I am speaking to Andrew, who informs me he represents something called the Lincolnshire Rural Crime Prevention and Awareness Forum. He said he had read my piece online and was quite impressed with it.

He pointed out that the ‘Forum’ bit in the long convoluted title might be changed to ‘Panel’ (as in wooden maybe?) as this was to be brought up in their next meeting of minds.

However, while he thought my column was written ‘tongue in cheek’ (I begged to differ on that), he also thought it would be ideal – subject to my agreement – to reproduce in a new free quarterly county magazine that is in the throes of being put together before being sent to print.

So far so good.

However, the more we chatted, the more it seemed that he would not be ‘terribly’ happy to include the segment mentioning Argos, as this was ‘advertising’ plus, due to the length, it would have to be cut down “of course”.

I pointed out that the Spalding Guardian didn’t have any problems with printing it.

Plus, Andrew said, they could not pay me “of course” as I would be “donating it” for their use “of course”.

I asked him in return if he knew the date when slave labour was abolished or are they still pursuing this line of employment?

The term “of course” was beginning to grate a bit by now I must confess. But, if nothing else, I feel sure, if he gives up what he is doing now, a career at the BBC awaits him… based on some of the ordeals I have suffered with assorted individuals employed there over many years.

By now I was wondering if he was going to ask me for my bank card details but the next bit was quite something.

Would I object to it appearing without my name?

I responded with “Why not go the whole hog and reproduce Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens but leave out the author’s name… You would be on safe ground there as he is now dead.”

Andrew’s pause was acceptable…

… before he asked: “Who is dead?”

After another of his acceptable pauses, he said he thought I was being flippant.

John often gets unusual telephone calls…

So I pointed out that, if I read it right, he/they wanted me to ‘donate’ my writing efforts, for him or A.N.Other to edit as they saw fit, leave out assorted ‘segments’ that didn’t pass their standards plus I was not even going to get a mention, credit-wise, as the original author!

I asked him how much he would like me to donate to their cause and I bade him farewell with an old Russian sounding greeting – with the second word being “off”…

Of course.

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Filed under Humor, Humour, Writing

To hell with correct grammar. This is English. What’s right is what feels right.

My chum Ariane Sherine’s 9-year-old daughter is astonishingly creative. It is perhaps not surprising that she is very literate as her mother has been a columnist for multiple broadsheet newspapers and has written books while her father also writes for a prominent broadsheet newspaper.

But she is also very musically and visually talented – again, something in the genes.

Last week, she got a new painting set as an early 10th birthday present and did this:

Admittedly it is based on an image she saw online. But the original has different colour tones, the blossoms on the tree are different and there are no blossoms coming off the tree. The original is a daytime image. Hers is, she says, “around six o’clock in the evening”.

She recently asked people she knows to write honest essays about her for her 10th birthday next week. So she can know what people think of her.

Last night, her mother showed me some of the essay she has written about her daughter. It included the sentence: “I’m so pleased you’re following in the footsteps of your father and I and expressing yourself creatively.”

The following text exchange then followed:


JOHN

I am always a bit vague on this but should it be “your father and me”?

‘You’ is subject; ‘following’ is verb; ‘footsteps’ = object?

But fuck knows how your father and I/me fits in. Clearly I need remedial education.

Genuinely flummoxed.

ARIANE

I have no idea but I asked a friend who didn’t know either – and he is a linguist! 😂


ARIANE: Hi – need grammar help! I want to say that I’m pleased she’s following in my and her dad’s footsteps, but how do I word it? 

“I’m so pleased that you’re following in the footsteps of myself and your father”?

or “of your father and I”?

or “of your father and me”?

FRIEND: I’m struggling too. Whichever way you say it, it sounds stiff and unidiomatic, which indicates to me that it needs rephrasing. Is it possible to mention her father and you in the previous sentence and then say: “I’m so pleased that you’re following in our footsteps”? Sorry I can’t be more helpful.


JOHN (to ARIANE)

The only person who’s going to know is your daughter and we can’t ask her!

Maybe “I’m so pleased that you’re expressing yourself creatively” – to disguise the fact that you, your friend and I are utterly illiterate!

ARIANE

Ha ha! Yes maybe 😂🤣

ME

It’s a sobering fact that you are a multi-titled broadsheet columnist with multiple books out… I was paid by Random House (the world’s biggest publisher) to edit a bestselling book… and your friend was a university lecturer possibly with academic publications to his name…

…and none of us knows how to write a basic English sentence!

ARIANE

Ha ha! To be fair, it’s a VERY difficult sentence! xxx

ME

Hah! Says you!

ARIANE

I don’t think my friend had stuff published in journals. His wife did, and she had a PhD. But he’s no slouch either! 

JOHN

My excuse is that I was mostly educated in Essex.

What’s your excuse?

I bet your daughter knows. She’s already got better vocabulary than we do.

ARIANE

She is amazing. 🥰 

JOHN

I’m off to bed now.

(LONG GAP)

JOHN

…talk about sleepless nights!

I was dozing off and “you’re following in the footsteps of your father and I” started swirling in my head!

The problem is it’s about the possession of the footsteps, not about subject-verb-object. So maybe both “I” AND “me” are wrong.

The actual thing being communicated is “you’re following in your father’s footsteps and in my footsteps”.

So I guess it should be “you’re following in the footsteps of your father and of mine”

But that and “you’re following in the footsteps of your father and mine” both sound ridiculous, so can’t sensibly be used.

I think it’s a balance between being grammatically correct and sounding right.

So it’s a case, as your friend said, of rephrasing … or of just tossing a coin about I and me.

ARIANE

Ha ha! Thanks for email, just read it. I think I‘ll stick with father and I… it’ll do.

JOHN

Yeah. Like I say. To hell with correct grammar. This is English. What’s right is what feels right.

I’m off to sleep now… I hope.

Unless I’m visited by the ghost of Dr Johnson.

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Filed under Language, Writing

Christmas in Cambodia with former comic and addict Chris Dangerfield

The always-controversial businessman and former comedian Chris Dangerfield has not cropped up in this blog for a while.

He now lives in Cambodia. Things have turned out OK for him.

When the weather is suitable, he wears $2,000 suits and $600 shoes. We spoke via Skype.

As always, blogs involving Chris are not for the faint-hearted reader.


JOHN: Here we are in the middle of a world-wide economic calamity. Are you still running your lock-picking business?

CHRIS: Yeah. Internet businesses are doing very well.

JOHN: When did you move to Cambodia?

CHRIS: Three or four years ago this March, I think. But I really don’t know. I’ve lost count.

JOHN: Why did you move to Cambodia?

CHRIS: I used to come out here to get clean. To Thailand. To get off the heroin. I used to come out here, cold turkey and stay clean while I was here but, every time I went back to London, I wouldn’t last long. I started associating my life in England with drug use and a sort of melancholy. It’s cold and grey and England’s changing in dramatic ways that I don’t support in any way.

JOHN: So why did you not move to Thailand?

CHRIS: That was the initial plan. But the visa there is not so simple. With me owning a business in Britain. You’re right. Patong, Thailand, is in many ways my spiritual home… but the phrase I’ve used before is I didn’t want to marry my mistress. Wherever you live is your life and I want Patong to be a holiday for me. I didn’t want to live there.

JOHN: It always struck me as a tad odd you went to Thailand and lived in a brothel to get off heroin.

Chris chose Cambodia instead of Thailand

CHRIS: It was very difficult to get heroin in that part of Thailand. Really. Compared to ice and weed and all the other stuff. So I didn’t have a hook-up for heroin in Patong. Also, I had an affair with a Thai madam who, when I met her, was a street-walking prostitute but, as our relationship developed over the years, she ended up running two of her own massage shops.

JOHN: Your business acumen helped her?

CHRIS: Not at all. She’s an incredible woman. But part of going out to Thailand to get clean was knowing that she would be there and she loved me and she would help me. I knew she would. I had never met a woman like her before. All the women in my life had been psychotic and awful… Well… I had a part to play in that. The common denominator was me…

…though also they WERE all mental.

Anyway, about five or six years ago, after about five weeks of the acute period phase of withdrawal, I just started writing this novel for the lack of anything better to do because I didn’t have the strength to go out. I was shuffling about like a zombie.

So I just started writing down what I’d gone through during that very intense withdrawal. I didn’t have any methadone or Subutex or anything. A couple of Xanax here and there, but…

Anyway, after that I kept doing bits and bobs and bits and bobs of writing and I was talking to Will Self about the novel and, when I finally got it near finished last year – about 110,000-120,000 words – I asked Will: “Look, what do I need? A copy editor? A proof reader?” 

He introduced me to a friend of his called Nick Papadimitriou, who wrote a very successful novel called Scarp.

And me and him got on like a house on fire. We were chatting about it for the year leading up to a couple of months ago and I gave him the manuscript and there’s a lot of work needs doing on it but I’m kinda hopeful it will be out in around March 2021. It just keeps taking longer because Nick wants it to be as good as it can be and, because I want people to read it, he wins… I’m very, very proud of it. 

The working title was Thai Style Cold Turkey, but I think maybe it’s going to be called Pharmakon Patong.

JOHN: It’s a bad time to be publishing books, isn’t it?

CHRIS: I think there’s not been a better time to be a writer.

“There’s not been a better time to be a writer.”

Amazon Direct Publishing is the way to go at the moment. It’s unlikely you’re gonna sell hundreds and thousands of novels and get rich. It does happen, but not often. When you self-publish through Amazon, your novel is available 48 hours after uploading it and it’s available as a paperback or a Kindle. And you get 70% of the cover price – not 7½% which you get with traditional publishing. 

So you publish the novel, do as much marketing as you can, do podcasts, build up a social media presence which I’ve kinda got – I’ve got 20,000 YouTube followers, 6,000 Twitter followers and ten years of stand-up gave me a little bit of a reputation out there – and you might sell 50 copies a month… which isn’t gonna make you rich…

But, on YouTube, I have told 400+ hours of stories. At the moment, I do two streams daily on my YouTube channel.

So, after this novel, I’m going to transcribe all those and I’ve probably got about five books of short stories. So I can put all them out there. And they might all sell 50 a month.

So I might be selling 300 copies of different books a month.

300 x £7 is not bad coming in monthly.

Then I do another novel. And another novel. And, if you can get two novels or two books of shorts out a year and create a little bit of interest in you then, in five years, it wouldn’t be unreasonable, to be earning a few grand a month from writing.

JOHN: Where did you get this business brain? Your parents?

CHRIS: (LAUGHS) No. Unless you include a failed Amway period by my old man. He was buying loads of really stupid cleaning products and pyramid selling them.

“… because it turned out quite nice…”

JOHN: But you ARE quite entrepreneurial.

CHRIS: It was noticed very early at school sports day – I used to go down the old cash & carry and sell sherbet dib-dabs and make a few quid. My grandad once gave me a sheep’s skull. Not covered in meat. Just bone. But I set a little stall up in my front garden and people could touch it for 2 pence. I mean, like, I’m Thatcher’s Child. I was like 10 years old in 1982.

JOHN: So you have this upcoming book to promote…What’s the elevator pitch?

CHRIS: At the start, a man is at Heathrow Airport. He’s decided to get clean and go to Thailand. And the end of the novel he is on an aeroplane going back to England. So it’s seven odd weeks. True story. There’s very little creativity there. It’s just what happened.

JOHN: So the moral is you should never leave your own home country?

CHRIS: No, the moral is you SHOULD because it turned out quite nice. BUT there’s two stories running simultaneously. There’s one in Thailand – which is written in the first person present. There’s also one about my childhood, which is written in the first person past. And they kind of interlink.

One of the problems I’ve had with the editor is he keeps talking about the architectonic of the story.

JOHN: Architectonic?

CHRIS: Architectonic.

JOHN: May the Lord protect us.

CHRIS: Yes, I’ve had to Google it regularly, too… But here’s the point… Much like my stand-up, I tend to start telling my story, then remind myself of something else, then go into that story then, while I’m telling that story, I’ll go into something else… so it’s kind of like fractular. 

JOHN: Fractular?

CHRIS: Fractular. Now, that’s OK so long as, at some point, you come back to the first story and second story and round it all up. That’s fine.

But what he’s been saying is sometimes it’s just confusing. He says he knows there’s an element of it reflecting what I’m going through in the novel, which is kind of cool… If the form of the novel reflects the content, then you’re on to something. But he says sometimes it just gets in the way of the storytelling. So that needs looking at.

JOHN: So back to the elevator pitch. What’s the novel about?

CHRIS: I set out to write a novel about addiction and withdrawal but I think it’s a story about love.

JOHN: Love of whom or what?

CHRIS: Just love as an idea and what happens when there’s not a lot about.

JOHN: You’ve got to love something. It’s a verb that needs an object.

CHRIS: Right. So when you don’t have a lot of love in your life, you end up doing what goes on in this novel.

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Filed under Books, Cambodia, Drugs, Thailand, Writing

Why “TENET” was incomprehensible…

Christopher Nolan: a great movie director (Photograph by Photo Georges Biard)

I saw TENET last night.

Christopher Nolan is a great movie director.

The Dark Knight was a wonderful piece of movie-making: direction, script, acting.

Dunkirk was amazing on a big screen with a good sound system.

TENET looks all of its $200million budget.

But it is bollocks.

Like Inception – which was also unecessarily impenetrable – he should have gone back to an earlier, simpler version of the script – perhaps Draft 2 or Draft 3. It was probably a great idea back then.

Although I hope it didn’t include the thrown-in-quite-late bit in TENET‘s plot which echoes the six Infinity Stones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and JRR Tolkien’s twenty Rings of Power. Maybe that was detritus left over from some discarded earlier version of the plot.

It is all very well to make intelligent or even mindless pure entertainment films which, with modern home technology, can benefit from being watched and re-watched several times, seeing more in them each time.

However, if the movie’s plot details are not intriguingly intricate but actually just bloody incomprehensible for stretches, then there is something wrong with the script.

And the problem with TENET is not just the labyrinthine impenetrability of the final script – It is the soundtrack.

Here you have the labyrinthine impenetrability of a script plus occasional added mumbling.

Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie (The Dark Knight Rises) had the main villain mumbling through a mask. But this time it is not just one person but loads of people mumbling semi-incomprehensibly through masks and over radios and phones and, at points, having to compete with very distracting overly-complicated music which interferes with the clarity of what’s being said.

And I saw TENET in a bleedin’ IMAX!

There was a fair amount of occasional unclear muttering in TENET, but I think that was mostly because of the sound mix at those points, not the acting.

I swear Christopher Nolan probably heard everything clearly in his super duper sound mixing suite but he should maybe do what Stanley Kubrick allegedly did – go round suburban cinemas with a light meter (though there’s nothing wrong with Tenet’s visuals) and hear the soundtrack through less good speakers.

Even in IMAX, there was unclear mumbling going on.

This morning, someone who saw TENET last week in a different cinema told me: “I thought I needed a hearing aid after watching it. Couldn’t hear all the vocals. Really spoilt it – or was it done on purpose so you have to watch it more than once?”

“It was like doing The Times crossword puzzle every day”

On the good side, Kenneth Branagh was wonderful, possibly deserving of a Best Supporting Actor (or Person) Oscar nomination.

This was maybe because Branagh rarely – or relatively rarely – had to be heard through a mask, a phone or sheets of glass.

So he could be (usually but not always) clearly heard.

Clarity should be one of the main tenets – yes, tenets – of film-making – clarity of script, clarity of diction, clarity of… well, everything.

In an interview in Total Film Kenneth Branagh said he constantly had to re-read the script in order to work out the storyline: “It was like doing The Times crossword puzzle every day.”

Robert Pattinson told Esquire that, during filming: “There were months at a time where I’m like: I actually, honestly have no idea if I’m even vaguely understanding what’s happening“.

If even your cast have trouble understanding what the hell is going on, pity the poor audience, especially if they can’t hear some of the muffled dialogue.

If you wanna write a novel, write a novel. But a movie ain’t a novel.

Apparently, Christopher Nolan developed the ideas and plot of TENET over the course of twenty years and had been working on this version of the script for about six or seven years. Well, that is part of the problem.

I remember, years ago – last century – having a conversation with a fellow TV researcher about good interviewees. We agreed that the best interviewee to explain something clearly to a general audience was not an expert but a fan. If you know too much about a subject, you can’t communicate it simply and comprehensibly. You know too much. If you are a fan, you know what the key features are and why a stranger to the subject could get hooked.

In the first two or three drafts of a script, there is the raw enthusiasm for the concept.

After six or seven or twenty years into it, you are fiddling with the detail, not communicating the raw originality.

My advice. If you have been refining something for twenty years, maybe go back to the original script which had the passion and simplify your 200th draft, don’t make it even more complicated.

And, when you sound-mix, counter-intuitively, listen to it on worse speakers.

Clarity in all things.

Give the punters half a chance.

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Filed under Movies, Writing

Angelo Marcos on why comics are like lawyers and jokes are like whodunnits

Angelo Marcos is a stand-up comedian and actor. He has written two short story collections and two novels. His fifth book, the crime thriller Victim Mentality, is out now.


JOHN: So what’s it about?

ANGELO: Well, I’ve written other psychological thrillers and they were quite dark, so this one was meant to be a lighter book, but (LAUGHS) it didn’t turn out that way. 

JOHN: Part of it is written in the First Person and part of it in the Third Person. 

ANGELO: Yes. The First Person is from the point-of-view of a stand-up comedian. 

JOHN: Everyone says a first novel tends to be autobiographical but, with you, the fifth book is autobiographical?

ANGELO: This is the most personal book I’ve written.

JOHN: You did Law and Psychology at university.

Angelo Marcos (Photo copyright Remy Hunter)

ANGELO: Yes, I studied Law and while I did that, I was also performing stand-up and doing acting, but then I found I didn’t have any money. So then I worked a bit – various things – a bank, offices, a supermarket. I worked for a market research company which was basically just other actors, with everyone sitting around trying to do as little work as possible, waiting for their agent to phone.

Then I re-trained – basically a Post-Graduate three-year Psychology course in one-and-a-half years. And I was writing during that time as well.

JOHN: So originally you wanted to be a lawyer, which is a very level-headed thing to aspire to… but you also had this mad stand-up comedy gene?

ANGELO: I went to university because everyone was going and I thought – Well – Law – OK. But, from the beginning, I was also doing stand-up. I was at the University of London, so it was easy enough to find gigs. I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but it wasn’t until about halfway through the degree that thought: OK, I DEFINITELY not only do not want to be a lawyer and I don’t want to work in Law. Let’s just get famous instead!

JOHN: Why didn’t you want to be in Law?

ANGELO: I found the analytical side of it fascinating, but I liked the kind-of absurd analytical side of it. I liked the fact you could pretty-much make words mean whatever you wanted them to mean.

I love stories. In criminal law, the cases were fascinating. So I elected to do subjects like Moral Philosophy, Law & Terrorism and other things kind-of affiliated with law, but not the core subject. I dunno. I just found Law itself a bit dry. It’s a really good degree to have. It’s a really good set of skills to have. But I prefer using them in other ways.

Lawyers and comics have much in common

JOHN: Barristers and comedians have in common the fact they both stand up and tell lies to create an effect on an audience.

ANGELO: That’s very true. Although lawyers get paid more, until you get to Michael McIntyre. But there IS that element of performance. 

When you are heckled as a stand-up, there are no holds barred. You HAVE to win. And I guess it’s similar in a court situation. If you are a barrister and someone questions one of your points or if you have a witness who is particularly hostile, I imagine the switch that goes on in the brain is the same: I have to win now!… In the same way that, as a stand-up, you don’t want to lose credibility, you don’t want to ‘lose’ the audience.

JOHN: And you have to persuade the audience that your story is credible and real, even if it might be a lie.

ANGELO: That’s true. You are saying: This is a scenario you need to buy into. This is what happened that night. Whether it’s true or not is a different thing. You have to sell that to the jury or the audience… I’m not saying that all lawyers do this. I’m not saying that no lawyers are interested in truth.

JOHN: I am. They are interested in winning and getting paid though, of course, they get paid whether they win or lose.

ANGELO: What I am saying is that, in my experience, it is entirely possible to be a successful lawyer and not be interested in truth.

JOHN: Being a lawyer in court and being a stand-up comedian are both about telling a story, which is what being a writer is also about…

ANGELO: Yeah. Absolutely. I do a lot of different things – stand-up, acting, writing – and I think the link is they all involve stories.

JOHN: And an interest in structure where the story has to build up to an interesting climax…

ANGELO: I think with the build-up to the punchline of a joke… the mechanism of that is the same when you are writing the twist in a novel crime thriller or a short story. In all three, you are giving the audience or the reader only the information you want them to have. Enough to follow you, but not enough to work out what the twist or what the joke is going o be.

Whether it’s a surprise punchline or the revelation that: “It was the babysitter all along!” – it’s a similar mechanism. I loved The Usual Suspects because it’s so clever and it totally tricked me.

JOHN: Like an optical illusion.

ANGELO: When I was doing Psychology, one of the lecturers explained the mechanism behind optical illusions and he was saying no matter how much you know about how they work, as a human being, every time you look at these pictures you will see the illusion first.

That’s where I got the premise for Victim Mentality: that it doesn’t matter how much you know, we are all wired in a certain way and that makes us all victims. You can try and look at the picture and not see the illusion, but you always WILL see the illusion.

“…the psychology of being a comedian is in the new book”

I suppose a lot of the psychology of being a comedian is in the new book. That sense of going to a gig that’s just not set up for comedy. There are a lot of hostile environments that you walk into at the open mic level, which is where the comedian in my book is.

He has been doing it for a while, struggling, and he’s also trying to get into acting. At the start of the story, his agent books an interview with him and an incarcerated criminal so he can get into character for the role. When they meet, it becomes obvious there’s quite a lot of similarities between them.

The premise of the book is that we are all victims of our own minds. The guy in jail is saying: “You are looking at me as if I am some kind of special case. You are trying to understand why I would do the things I do. But, essentially, we are all wired in certain ways; we all have certain life experiences that cause us to act the way we do.”

There is tragedy in the comedian’s past and in the criminal’s past.

I don’t go so far as to question Free Will, but it’s a case of Are you doing this because you are wired to do it or because it’s fun or whatever? Are you a victim of your own brain just like everyone else?

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Filed under Acting, Comedy, Legal system, Psychology, Writing

How to write a successful Edinburgh Fringe comedy show… Four ideas…

What comedy shows go down best at the annual Edinburgh Fringe?

Well, serious self-analysis always goes down well with the Awards judges.

My last blog here was about a conversation I had with a chum at St Pancras station in London.

I also started pontificating to her about how to write a one-hour comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. I think she glazed over internally but disguised it well. After all, she is a performer.

I am not a performer. So what do I know?

Ignore what follows if you have better ideas.

And, like all generalities, there are exceptions.

But – hey! – this is my blog and, just for the helluvit, this is what I think…

Go write your own blog if you disagree.

The only near-certainty if you follow any advice of mine or any advice of any kind or no advice of any kind is that you will probably lose money at the Fringe…


Expanding a good 20-minute stage act where you meander from one anecdote to another via cleverly obscuring the fact that none of the bits really fit together but you have ‘seamlessly’ Sellotaped over the gaps with clever links… That doesn’t work in a 55-ish minute show at the Edinburgh Fringe (or anywhere else).

You have to write a single unitary show.

BIT OF ADVICE 1

I think all Edinburgh shows need a single relentless theme and 100% should be about that one single theme with a single developing narrative strand.

People talk about the ‘dead dad’ story you should drop in about 35-40 minutes into the duration of a 55-ish minute show. 

The theory of the Dead Dad is that a show can have wonderfully funny stories but, after about 30-35 mins, the audience settles into the rhythm of the performance and they still laugh but ‘sameness’ fatigue sets in, even though they’re still laughing.

An unexpected shock at around 35/40 minutes into a 55 min narrative show pulls the carpet from under the audience’s expectations and shocks them into being 100% attentive again. If you can suddenly mention that your dad died last week, that should do it. But anything unexpected and different.

They are shocked – when it’s successful – into total silence. Of course, in a comedy show, you then have to be a good enough performer to get them back in the last 10 minutes to finish with a climactic laughter fest/orgasm. Then they go out happy and smiling having been on the thrill of a rollercoaster.

BIT OF ADVICE 2

Write an elevator pitch for your own show. For your eyes only. Eight words saying what your show is specifically about. Not generally. No generality. One specific subject.

Anything that doesn’t fit that succinct 8-word description, chuck it out.

It doesn’t matter how clever or funny it is. If it doesn’t fit the description, chuck it out. You can use it in a future show but NOT this show. However funny, however clever, however well-written it is… if it doesn’t fit into your 8-word description of your own show’s specific subject, it will interrupt the flow of the single narrative thread and it will be a distraction to the audience’s attention/involvement in your narrative. 

A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include.

There used to be an ad on television, the selling line of which was:

“It’s the fish John West reject that make John West the best”

Follow the fish principle!

But without the smell.

A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include, even more than what you include.

BIT OF ADVICE 3

Ask yourself why you alone can do this specific show and no-one else can.

If you can do a show on a general subject, then so can I – so can anyone else.

If you can’t be original, at least be personal. 

Why can you alone do this specific show and no-one else can?

Make it personal.

No-one reads autobiographies for facts.

They want to be voyeurs on another person’s life. Either because they think: That’s just like me. Or they want to experience something they have never and will never experience.

People want to hear about people not ideas.

Or they want to hear about ideas via a narrative involving people whose lives and minds they can become involved with.

No-one except an academic reads books or watches movies or watches comedy shows for abstract facts. That ain’t a show, it’s a lecture. Go perform at Speaker’s Corner in London, not on a comedy stage in Edinburgh.

If you talk about facts illustrated by specific human stories – ideally your own – people will be interested. 

Pretty much the same events happen to everyone. But how the events interact with a specific person is unique.

Ordinary people read books/watch shows for emotional and psychological voyeurism. They want to identify with other people.

BIT OF ADVICE 4

This goes back to concentrating the audience’s minds with a single narrative plot.

The ‘one’ plot is allegedly… A hero (or heroine) sets out on a quest to find something. Things happen along the way. The hero (or heroine) finds the thing (good or bad) – it may be a truth or a revelation.

It is a search for a specific Holy Grail.

In the case of a one hour Fringe show, everything along the way has to progress the journey. No jolly side anecdotes unrelated to the quest. Everything must be relevant to your 8-word definition of the quest.

The Grail – the climax of the show – is a single specific thing.

When you start writing the show, you have to know what the very end is. Otherwise you will inevitably waffle. 

What is the last paragraph, the last sentence of the show?

Anyone can do a show about the quest for an idea. 

What is the specific show only you can write and perform about that quest that I or 2,000 other people cannot do?

Personal.

People.

One single strand.

Keep on the bloody subject!

And now all you have to do is make it funny!!!!!! 

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Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh, Performance, Writing

I mistook someone else for me in comic Janet Bettesworth’s pre-novel ‘doodles’

She studied Fine Art & Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

Everyone inevitably makes instant judgments on people’s characters at first sight: solely on their looks. But we seldom see ourselves as others see us.

Comedian, art connoisseur and Grouchy Club regular Janet Bettesworth recently announced: “I’m going to write a novel by doodling the characters first.” She studied Fine Art and Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

She is currently posting drawings – she calls them ‘doodles’ – on her Facebook page and asks three questions for Facebook Friends to answer about each unknown person sketched. For example:

  • What is his name?
  • The love of his life?
  • His taste in furniture?

I recognised the 25th sketch was of fellow Grouchy Club regular Peter Stanford. Janet’s questions were:

Peter Stanford – airlifted to safety after a farming incident?

  • What’s his name?
  • His most recent airborne experience?
  • Way of organising a picnic?

Answers included:

  • His name is Nils, he was airlifted to safety after a farming incident. Picnics for him are rye bread & herring & fermented ale.
  • He used to get gigs as a Brian Blessed looky-like until he accidentally boarded an EasyJet to Finland, where he found a lot more work playing Santa to tourists, and now he drinks mulled wine all year round.

And, from Peter Stanford himself:

  • Definitely one of the gods in your novel. Cranach looks down at the mortals giving the Deserving pieces of good luck and mugs of tea. He is rarely airborne as he can transport himself between the godly and earthly realms instantaneously. His worshippers organise ‘Picnics’ (feasts held indoors in the colder months and only outside in high summer) for the poor and homeless – and anyone else – in his honour as part of their devotions, instead of building temples. When he was appearing on earth, he drank mugs of tea, which he shared with other people. “Don’t build any temples”, he told them. “Just organise picnics and tea.” The cult is always in danger of dying out.

A few days later, Peter pointed out to me that No 30 in Janet’s series looked a lot like me, though with different-shaped spectacles. I had a look and thought: Well, bugger me, that does look like it’s me!

The three questions Janet asked of her Facebook Friends were:

Is this me? – or Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge?

  • What is his name?
  • His opinion of Boris Johnson?
  • His chances of winning the Lottery?

The answers seemed to reflect more on the personality of the commentator rather than on me and tended to reflect British people’s somewhat unhealthy continuing obsession with Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

  • Glenn Thoresby. What he really thinks of Boris Johnson is unprintable here; enough to say he believes that the British people have been lied to mercilessly by this entitled upper-class toff who doesn’t give a monkey’s: a feckless, narcissistic, utterly irresponsible public school product, a marionette of Dominic-whom-nobody-voted-for-Cummings. Glenn’s chances of winning the Lottery are nil as he doesn’t buy the tickets. He believes they are an exploitative tax on the poor who, (like Brexit voters) think they have a chance to turn their fates around on a million to one statistical odds. This doesn’t stop him from buying raffle tickets occasionally, though, especially when the prize is a good bottle of plonk and/or the beneficiaries’ cause is a good one.
  • This is a cracking picture. I think his name is Peter Egg and he’s a foodie: a London restaurant critic who is zealous about plant-based foods to the extent that the smell of animal products cooking now makes him gag. Restaurants where he dines now have to put him in a separate room and block the doorframe with towels and wet loo paper to stop the offending molecules reaching his nose. He thinks Boris is an execrable pig or walking pork roast. He has no chance of winning the Lottery as he never enters. It only penetrates his consciousness when he goes to the theatre and sees its logo at the bottom of programmes for plays it has funded.

Janet Bettesworth – Edinburgh Fringe, 2012

  • Dimitri Dennis Zabaroski. He won’t win. He doesn’t do Lottery. Hates the foreign man who won up the road… they should fuck off back home. (Both parents immigrated to Luton in the ’50s.) He works at car plant locally and knows a lot of foreign people abuse the system. Likes Prince Andrew and his confidence. Likes Borris and wants to have a flag pole outside his house with Farage and Union flag. Council refused planning application. All foreign.
  • This is Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge, known to his closest friends as 3Pee. He is a second cousin, once removed to Boris. He is immensely proud and fond of his childhood pal, with whom he roasted chestnuts and netted little jars of frogspawn when the families got together for camping trips. They frequently got their shorts mixed up, being almost identical in size and shape. They still swap Christmas jumpers, particularly the ones gifted by Rachel as she seems to find the ones with the rudest slogans… Piggott has enjoyed a varied career, which includes a brief spell as a fluffer in a Hollywood porn production company (he was sacked for making badly edited and shaky copies on his secret camera which discreetly attached to his paisley patterned cravat). He also worked as a rickshaw driver in Hong Kong, normally stationed outside the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon but few tourists engaged his services due to his extremely eccentric hats and comedy Chinese moustaches… He eventually made his fortune writing haiku messages predicting the purchasers’ marriage prospects onto extremely dark and gloomy canvases which sell for many dollars all over the USA. In his own way, therefore, he has already won the lottery so has no need to buy tickets on the weekly National Lottery, which he disdains with a passion – matched only by that of his antipathy to the unelected bureaucrats of the European Commission.

I contacted Janet, because I thought it would make an interesting blog to run her drawing of me with strangers’ character assessments of what this unknown person might be like.

But there was a snag…

She told me it was NOT a sketch of me at all: in fact, it was a sketch of her husband! She said he found the comments amusing – He does despise Boris Johnson, but he does do the Lottery.

Now Janet HAS included a sketch of me. Sadly with less interesting comments/suggestions. 

Does this Jewish man appreciate a good, well-shaped calf?

Her questions were:

  • What is his name?
  • His over-riding passion in life?
  • Way of dealing with problems? 

The responses include:

  • Manny Silverman. Loves small investments. Still dining out on making £35,000 on ‘Britcoin’ a couple of years ago. Cigars and coffee are how he copes with life’s complexities. Don’t mention the time he passed on Apple shares, though.
  • Godfrey was a prostate specialist and his hands could reach parts that others… but now volunteers at his local city farm delivering calves – His approach to life? He always gets stuck in and is happy to get his hands dirty
  • This is Howard Silver. He’s a nice East End Jewish boy now living in Southgate. He’s a life-long socialist and lives in a rented housing association flat that he got through Rachel, one of his cousins who works there. He doesn’t own anything, aside from the clothes on his back and a few sticks of furniture, all the books on Communism he’s read were borrowed never bought. He’s lifelong Labour, red through and through but was recently upset by the growing anti-Semitism in the party so he voted green for the first time ever in protest. He’s what Yiddish speakers would term a poor old nebbish.
  • His name is Frank Gibbins. He thinks that the world has become strange, impersonal and unnecessarily complicated… He seeks solace in the simplicity of nature and its instinctive laws, eg. the way that the ducklings follow the mother duck, the unquestioned authority of the silverback gorilla in setting the direction of his troop and keeping it in order… He likes to sit in the park for hours, observing the behaviour of humans as they centre themselves in selfies against the backdrop of the beautiful autumnal leaves or wander around oblivious to the creatures of the forest…Sometimes he’ll draw them in his book and imagine their thoughts.
  • Constantine Gras – because he looks the spit of a friend of mine called Constantine Gras. Well, what he’d look like in about 30 years. He’s tall – maybe 6’2. He’s an artist/filmmaker.
  • Who are these people? (Photograph: Jez Timms via UnSplash)

    Clive Earnshaw. Son of a bookkeeper and an apiarist, he has inherited a calm demeanour in all kinds of crisis situations, which served him well in his job as an emergency medical technician. His overriding passions in life are his sibling’s children, for whom he would do anything. His search for meaning led him to a retreat in the North African desert and he converted to the Sufic branch of Islam. His way of dealing with problems (apart from whirling) is to quote soothing aphorisms such as: This too will pass. He is deeply peaceful.

The trite lesson to be learned from all this?

People see totally different characters and backgrounds in exactly the same faces. Initial assumptions about people can – and very often are – wrong.

Peter Stanford’s view my sketch was:

  • This is Derek Milchman, a friend of No 30: that one which looks like him. They sometimes swap glasses and pretend to be each other. If this is a humorous book, with hilarious results; if a grim book, this leads to a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.

Janet replied: “I am not entirely in agreement. For students of phrenology and physiognomy, it may be observed that No. 30 has a receding jawline, whereas No. 39 has a protruding one. I do like the idea of a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.”

Comedy critic Kate Copstick, recognised me: “This is John Fleming!!!” And Peter Stanford asked Janet: “So what role are you going to give him in the novel?”

A “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait

She replied: “If you’re referring to the author of the Malcolm Hardee biography, the hands are too big and seem to be coated with some kind of white substance.”

Janet also told me that she had included a “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait – No 31 in the bunch.

And below are three more of her drawings.

Janet tells me: “I do two types of doodles – one where I’m basing it on a real person, and the other where I do random scribbles with my eyes closed, then a face gradually emerges out of the chaos, like seeing faces in the fire – that way is by far my favourite…”

One final comment and query from one of Janet’s Facebook Friends sums it all up, though: “I keep wondering why you’re writing a novel when you’re so ‘geniusly’ good at drawing – Or are you even better at writing?”

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Filed under Art, Comedy, Psychology, Writing

Comic Njambi McGrath’s autobiography

I had a chat with comedy performer Njambi McGrath at the Museum of Comedy in London. Her autobiographical memoir Through the Leopard’s Gaze is published today in print and as an audio book. The blurb reads:

“Beaten to pulp and left for dead, 13 year old Njambi found the courage to escape, fearing her assailant would return to finish her. She walked all night risking wild animals, robbers and murderers in the Kenyan countryside, before being picked up by two shabbily dressed men. She spent her life burying memories of that fateful day and night…”


JOHN: So you’ve written your autobiography and it’s all about your appalling family life back in Kenya.

NJAMBI: Basically, it’s a journey back into my life, triggered by the death of my father in 2014. A few things had happened before that. My brother was getting married just before, which threw things into chaos.

JOHN: In Kenya.

NJAMBI: Yes. My father and I had been estranged for a very long time. The last time I had seen him was when he beat me and left me to die… Fast forward… My brother was getting married and my father was invited and I went into complete meltdown. All I could think about was everything that happened to me when I was 13 years old.

“…and then it ended up opening a whole Pandora’s Box…”

So I wanted to talk to my father about it before the wedding, because I felt like I was going to explode – and that meeting was disastrous because he brought his entire family and I wasn’t able to speak to him.

Then, after the wedding – It had brought up all the trauma in me – I rang him and we organised a meeting. But he didn’t turn up to that meeting because he died.

I completely lost my mind. So I decided to write a book. It started off as a journey to tell the world what a horrible man my father was and then it ended up opening a whole Pandora’s Box: all the evils of the world.

So it is a journey back into my childhood and into my parents’ childhood, to try and discover why they were so messed up. And it seems like History plays a major role.

JOHN: Blame the British?

NJAMBI: I cannot do a show about my life without mentioning the British. That is an important point, because my parents grew up at a horrible, horrible time: they grew up during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s. 

They were children then. So you can imagine my father, as a young boy, seeing women brutalised every single day of their lives… You would grow up thinking that was normal. They had grown up at a horrible time. But I didn’t know that.

When people are traumatised by a major event, once they are free from it, they tend to want to forget about it. They don’t pass it on to their children but maybe not realising they have been traumatised and can’t face up to it and, if it’s not addressed, their children will be traumatised. It’s called Generational Trauma.

JOHN: Your book is called Through the Leopard’s Gaze. Why that title?

NJAMBI: Because, when I was a child, we lived in a beautiful area called The White Highlands. When the British arrived, they took it for themselves. They kicked out my tribe – the Kikuyu farmers – and took the land for themselves. They put the Kikuyu people in ‘reservations’.

JOHN: When did you come to Britain?

NJAMBI: When I was just coming up to 19.

JOHN: I only spent the first 8 years of my life in Scotland; the rest mostly in London. But I feel Scottish not English. You spent the first 18 years of your life in Kenya…

NJAMBI: We are so confused! My husband is English. My two daughters are British. I have two sisters and two brothers. We all came over, but my brothers moved back to Kenya.

JOHN: And your mother is…

NJAMBI: She died just over a month ago – in December – on Friday the 13th. 

JOHN: Your book will also be your Edinburgh Fringe show in August?

“At least you’re not black black”

NJAMBI: The show will be called Black Black because, the night before I got married, my husband’s mother said: “When I found out that David was marrying a woman from Africa, I was horrified. But at least you’re not black black.”

My mother was very black; my grandmother was very black. So it is a show where I am paying homage to the blackest people I know. It is a comparison between me and my life now and my grandmother. She lived through the Nazi era. She and I were put into institutions. I went to boarding school in Kenya; my grandmother was put in a British ‘concentration’ camp in Kenya. We were both controlled by the British.

JOHN: This is going to be billed as Comedy in Edinburgh?

NJAMBI: (LAUGHING) Yes. You can talk about something serious, but find the funny in it. In a comedy show, I would like to make people think as well as laugh. 

JOHN: Politics as well?

NJAMBI: Like I said, I cannot do a show about my life without mentioning the British. It has led some people to say I’m racist. But how can I be racist if everything is affected by everything that the British did to us? My education. I speak English. Everything. The land that we lived in. The coffee that was introduced by the British. I cannot not talk about the British.

JOHN: Anything else on the horizon?

NJAMBI: I wrote a sitcom – I have a writing partner. We finished writing it just before the Edinburgh Fringe last year. It’s with a production house. Someone once said to me: “Write about what you know.” Well, I’m an immigrant and there are issues surrounding immigration… And we are currently writing a feature film – well, you gotta try! In it, I am a black African woman with an Austrian lesbian and a Jamaican woman.

JOHN: You are busy…

NJAMBI: And I’m writing my first novel. I’m past halfway. And, out of this one, I think I could write a children’s book – using an element of it.

JOHN: Very busy!

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Filed under Africa, Kenya, Psychology, Racism, Writing

A blog written by predictive text

I thought I would see what a 7-paragraph blog would be like if I let predictive text take over and only start it off… So, with absolutely no editing by me…


The number of unknown unknowns is unknown

What I want to tell you today is gonna be a great night.

The first thing you did there is to be in the bed. The first time is a bit harsh.

The only way you could do that this app was for the iPad and it is very good for you and the free was a great way too.

The only way was a way to make it happen to you.

The first time is a bit harsh but it was the best.

You can never use Facebook for chat or later chat with a few people.

You have been an awesome person for me and you are both in a way of telling the story about the two days you were going through the door to the answer.


Having read that – written entirely by predictive text… It could almost be a Presidential statement.

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