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Why I am interested in comedians

Today’s issue of Metro

Today’s issue of the daily Metro newspaper

Today’s Metro newspaper contains a feature on The Giants of Comedy to which I was asked to contribute a piece on “the weirder acts to look out for”. Metro describes me as an “alternative comedy champion”.

In this blog, I try to tell short stories with a rounded ending about interesting people doing interesting (mostly creative) things. Very often they are comedians. Very rarely do I write about myself although regular readers might be able to make up a patchwork impressionistic picture of my life.

You might wonder why am I interested in weird comedy acts.

Or you might not.

I have mentioned in past, dimly remembered blogs that I tried to commit suicide when I was newly 18 and that I was briefly in a mental hospital.

So why do I enjoy watching comedy?

Throughout my life, most of my income came from the promotion departments of TV companies. I was employed to write words and edit trailers which would persuade people to watch TV programmes – trying to manipulate their perception so that the ratings would be higher.

I am interested in the use of words and the manipulation of perception. So I am interested in how sentences and performances can be structured to make audiences laugh and the different reasons why people laugh – or, indeed, cry – timing, surprise, unexpected twists, incongruity, recognition, whatever.

Occasionally but rarely, in random spurts, I have kept diaries.

Dave Lee Travis (Photograph by Brian Milnes)

Dave Lee Travis (Photograph by Brian Milnes)

This morning, because of the Dave Lee Travis court verdict yesterday, I looked up my diary for around the suicide attempt/mental home time. The reason – possibly pompous – was connected to two quotes which came to my mind:

1) “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” (L.P.Hartley)

2) “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (Lots of French people)

These are some edited extracts from my diary. The first is when I was in hospital after my failed suicide attempt. I tried to kill myself with tablets on a Friday.

“My parents visited me every day in hospital. On the Sunday, they brought me fruit. And, to cut it, one highly-polished, silver-shining, sharply serrated-edged knife. And, after they had gone, I looked at that knife and looked and looked and picked it up and looked. I ran my finger along the serrated edge and looked and ran the edge along my wrist and looked. And felt the point against my finger and against my wrist. And I only just managed to give it to a nurse.

“Which is why, when I got out of hospital, I panicked and my insides were like kitchen crockery in a house above a tube-train tunnel. And it was very difficult to keep a straight face. I could not think straight and my mental reactions were so slow. That horrified me. It was like being in Death Valley with the noonday sun three times closer than it should be.”

At that time, if you tried to commit suicide – especially aged 18 – I think there was a tendency to suggest you might want to go into a mental home.

And I did want to rest, to be away from people, because I was so nervy and because I was afraid of what I might do if I did not go in.

When I went in, a doctor ‘interviewed’ me and suggested I could talk to his students when he gave a lecture later in the week. But I just wanted to be alone.

They gave me ‘happy pills’ and sleeping pills that first night and I went from deep depression to a sky-high high before I went to sleep. But I did not want to be high.

Claybury Mental Asylum in Essex (Photo: English Heritage)

Claybury Mental Asylum in Essex (Photo: English Heritage)

In the mental hospital, I wrote this:

“The Mad Hatter pops in: a James Joyce with a blue Embassy cigarette coupon stuck in his greased hair. The lights go on at a quarter to four and then go off again. No-one has entered the room. The mad room.

My Little Lady by The Tremeloes plays at quarter volume on the wartime radio. When I came in last night, it was violins and classical music on the radio, like a TV play about old people dying, dead in seaside boarding houses in the off-season.

“My right side throbs. It is Visiting Hour. Or something. People talk in whispers. It is late afternoon and the afternoon has gone to greyness.

“This morning, an enormous pigeon threw itself against the windowpane of the door, saw where it was and fled away. Before I arrived here, the clear-skinned 23-year-old boy threw the red vinyl table through the window and was caught by a nurse. The friendly, backward boy gets violent occasionally. He throws teacups and saucers, matchboxes and plastic orange juice bottles.

“When he talks to me, he keeps wanting me to be the active, adventurous type. He keeps saying how active he was and how he liked exploring, finding ruins and exploring remote bogs. He and his family – his three sisters and one brother – were nomads around Europe in the last, hard decade.

“He tells me his mother is such an incredible mixture. His girlfriend Evie is from Chelmsford. He tells me he met her in Occupational Therapy. But now she has gone to OT in Exeter. She used to visit him.

“He sings the song Me My Friend as Be My Friend. With gusto. He says he misses Evie. He tells other people I am his friend and keeps telling me to tell him if he talks too much. He sits there in his wheelchair with his eyes of water. Sparkling. Nothing else. Just water.”

There is a clip on YouTube of Family singing Me My Friend.

“The male nurse in the ward tells me he has a strong right hand. He says he ‘does it’ twice a day or twice a week. Depending on how he feels. He asks have I ever let anyone else do it. He goes on and on. He tells all the patients this and talks about going to out-buildings with them.”

I discharged myself from the mental home after a day but nothing that happened there seemed strange.

Several years later, I went back to Claybury Asylum to interview a doctor for a piece I was writing. As I sat waiting in the corridor, the only way you could tell patients from staff as they passed by was the speed at which they walked: the patients walked slower, because they were sedated and had no purpose.

Today’s Metro reports DJ DLT faces prison

Today’s Metro reports DJ DLT faces prison

Yesterday, DJ Dave Lee Travis was found guilty of groping the breasts of a woman – then a TV researcher, now a ‘TV personality’ – for around 15 seconds in 1995. On TV last night, a Sunday Times reporter (who never brought charges and was not involved in the court case) said he groped her too. It seemed a very 1960s or 1970s thing to do. But it happened in 1995.

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

So why do I like comedy?

Because I am laughing at life, not with life.

I like dark humour. I am fascinated that ‘unacceptable’ and non-funny subjects like rape, murder, death, drug addiction and madness and all the rest can be made to be funny. And I like surrealism : the twisting/manipulation of reality into meaninglessness. For example, in this morning’s Metro, I mentioned that The Human Loire says he is the only French river playing the UK comedy circuit and that his act includes enunciating passages in Middle English from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales while pouring milk onto Corn Flakes inside his trousers. It also includes using a hammer to nail grapes onto a large cut-out of Justin Bieber’s face while gargling Sophocles’ Ode To Man using Listerene antiseptic mouthwash.

When he does this, the surrealism makes me laugh.

When other people TRY to be surreal by doing equally meaningless things, I do not laugh.

Why?

I do not know but I would like to know.

So I watch comedy.

At the recent Edinburgh Fringe, there was one show where I laughed out loud (a rare thing) throughout. It was Johnny Sorrow performing as part of the Bob Blackman Appreciation Society. A couple sitting to my left sat mostly stone-faced throughout.

When Johnny imitated the sadly mostly-forgotten comedy act Bernie Clifton prancing around in an ostrich costume I laughed out loud. When he said Don’t talk to me!… Don’t talk to me! I laughed out loud.

Why?

I do not know. I just found it overwhelmingly funny.

The other factor in being interested in comedy, of course, is that people who perform it well – who have true originality and who are not just copying what they have seen on TV as part of a business plan – are mostly, in some way, damaged.

Damaged people are interesting people.

But then, when you get to know them, most people are damaged.

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Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Suicide

Surrealist comedy performer Martin Soan goes into an Essex mental asylum

Another comedian not going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year

Martin Soan, creator of highly original comic ideas…

When I was newly 18, I went voluntarily into a mental asylum as an in-patient because I tried to kill myself. The doctors thought it required treatment; I thought it was a sensible life-choice.

When performer Martin Soan was 17, he voluntarily went into a mental asylum as a member of staff: to work as a porter.

He has been staying with me for the last couple of days.

“When I was 15, my parents won the Football Pools,” he told me and my eternally-un-named friend last night over dinner. “We moved from the East End of London to a village called Earls Colne near Colchester in Essex and I went off the rails. I had been doing really well in the East End – I took pride in my schoolwork; I wasn’t top of the class, but I enjoyed endeavouring. Within months of moving out to Essex, I drifted into odd behaviour, taking drugs and getting into trouble with the police.”

“You left school at 16?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Martin, “but, by then, aged 15, I’d moved into a squat in Colchester and I’d got made a ward of court because I got caught stealing…”

“Stealing what?” I asked.

“Carpet from a doctor’s office.”

“Was it open?” I asked.

“It was night time,” said Martin. “I got made a ward of court, went home for a matter of weeks, got a night job working for Courtaulds for a few months – weaving things. Water jet looms. Then I got the job at the mental hospital – Severalls Hospital, just outside Colchester in Essex. It was a huge hospital – 300 acres – It was a couple of miles away from Turners Village, a children’s psychiatric hospital which eventually got done for child abuse, neglect, cruelty to patients, everything.”

“Why did you decide to work in a mental home?” I asked.

A recent photo of Severalls Hospital , which closed in 1997

A recent photo of Severalls Hospital, which closed in 1997

“Because I had a fear of people with mental health problems,” he explained. “I grew up with my cousin who was mentally and physically handicapped; he was maybe two years older than me. He had a droopy mouth and a strange walk. He used to clomp along. He was lovely and we used to play together, but he used to get me in these strangleholds and embraces – it was out of love, I suppose. He used to terrify me; he used to half-strangle me. I was always terrified I was going to get really, really hurt by him.

“He was not doing it viciously or vindictively at all. He was just clumsy and didn’t know his own strength. He was incredibly strong.”

“When I was at college,” I said, “I went and interviewed a psychiatrist at the mental hospital where I had been a patient and, sitting in the corridor waiting to see him, I could tell which people passing me were patients and which were staff. The patients walked slower, because they had been drugged so heavily and had no life left in them.”

“Drugs are the straitjacket now,” said Martin. “They used to lock ‘em up and put ‘em in straitjackets because people were frightened of  ’em. Now drugs do exactly the same thing. It stops them being a problem.”

“Were some people in there for life?” I asked.

“There was Albert,” replied Martin. “He had these huge, huge, Denis Healey type eyebrows and a huge belly. He was ancient and used to help me do the laundry and go round the wards with me on these electric vehicles.

“When he was younger, Albert had wounded someone in a field with a shotgun. Accidentally. He didn’t mean to shoot them; he had not intended to kill them and he just wounded them. It was a mistake.”

“Was he simple?” I asked.

“By the time I met him,” Martin explained, “he had a wonderful logic about him, but he had been completely institutionalised and drugged out of his head; he was a drugged, dribbling idiot, basically.

“There was another guy who had a limp. You just had to say the name of one football team to him. I would say West Ham and he would say West Ham 3 Chelsea 2 – Newcastle United 2 Hull City 2 and he would do the latest scores each week. He would walk down the corridors saying the football scores.

“My job being a porter was to do the laundry, take meals and drugs to the wards and all that. There was a morgue there and I had to label the bodies and put them on the things you slid them into the fridges on.”

“You did that by yourself?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.

Martin with my eternally-un-named friend yesterday

Martin Soan with my eternally-un-named friend yesterday

“Most of them were thin and weighed less than a sack of potatoes,” explained Martin.

“How often did people die?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.

“Severalls Hospital was big. An average ward held about 40, so I would guess it had an absolute minimum of about 800 people in it… It had its own bank and shops. There were wards in the main hospital and then in the grounds were satellite wards like army barracks around this huge complex – secure wards and medical wards because there was a lot of self-mutilation and health problems.”

“So every week someone would die?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.

“Oh yeah,” Martin replied immediately. “There was a mixture of people there. A lot of ordinary Alzheimer’s cases. Just old people and some very ordinary people who shouldn’t have been there at all. Like Albert, who made a mistake and wounded someone with a shotgun and they put him in a mental hospital.

“But there were some characters who were completely bonkers. I was walking to one of the outside wards and suddenly this old woman comes out of the forest completely stark bonkers naked and just throws herself on me so I’m on the ground with her screaming something about me not bringing the ring to the wedding.”

“Things like that must have really done-in your 17 or 18 year-old brain,” I suggested.

“I think I just needed to confront my fears,” said Martin. “The problem was my physical fear of my cousin and I had mixed it up in my mind with being frightened of all mad people or very extrovert type people. But, very quickly, I realised it wasn’t them I was frightened of. It was my own mental state. As soon as I sussed that, I just ended up with another set of problems.”

“What mental state?” I asked.

“My mental state,” said Martin.

Martin Soan got high with B.A.

Martin Soan, accomplished surrealist

“Why?” I asked. “Because you were close to the brink yourself? I understand that feeling.”

“Yes, that,” he replied. “And Martin, just stop worrying about stuff. Stop worrying about your petty fears. There are people out there with far worse problems. It normalised what’s going on in your own head. At the time, I was taking lots of LSD. I used to take it at weekends. On the rota, you had almost four days off between your work, so you could take a load of drugs and sober up and go back in. But, one Sunday afternoon, when there was a skeleton staff and no authority figures in, I went in completely high on acid.”

“Were you hallucinating?”  I asked.

“Some of the time, yeah. But I’d been taking so much it had become the norm. You acclimatise to it. So I knew I could go off into little reveries of surreal imagery by focussing on the minutiae of the world around me and then, if something happened, I could snap myself out of it.”

“But,” I said, “if you’d been high on acid when some naked woman had leapt out of the woods onto you, that would have REALLY done your head in.”

“I suppose so,” said Martin. “But it all becomes the norm. It’s just mundane in the end. I realised what I had to be careful of was my own brain, not other people’s.”

“Were you interested in performing comedy before you worked in the mental asylum?” I asked.

“I was doing Punch & Judy shows all the way through this,” said Martin, “but my comedy was always a bit weird. I used to do surreal puppetry when I was about 16.”

“People being mad and people being creative is very similar,” I said, “because their minds are going off at wild tangents. If you do surreal humour, you know you are being surreal, whereas mad people don’t know they’re being surreal. Maybe comedy performers are controlling their interesting lateral thinking and mad people are not.”

“With the surreal puppetry,” said Martin, “I thought I can’t do that sort of stuff, because no-one’s going to understand me. So I ended up doing Punch & Judy shows but, within that, I started bending, perverting the story of Punch & Judy.”

Martin’s Punch & Judy shows were called The Greatest Show On Legs.

“Did you always do adult Punch & Judy?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Martin, “but it wasn’t aimed at adults. “It was just my interpretation of Punch & Judy.”

“I thought it was rude?” I asked.

The Greatest Show on Legs in their prime

The Greatest Show on Legs in a later incarnation (from left) Malcolm Hardee, Steve Bowdidge, Martin Soan

“It did start getting rude,” agreed Martin, “and, when Malcolm Hardee joined The Greatest Show On Legs it was fully-fledged and took off as a rude Punch & Judy show.”

“And, at Severalls,” I prompted, “you did lots of different things as a porter…”

“We rotated all the jobs,” said Martin. “One of them was to escort patients up to the ECT ward.”

“I didn’t know they still did ECT – electro-convulsive therapy – in those days,” I said.

“I was disturbed they were still doing it,” replied Martin.

“Around which year was this?” I asked.

“1970. Even though it was the Seventies, it was very Victorian in all sorts of ways. They hadn’t moved on very much. When you dropped them off for ECT, even though they were troubled, they were animated – they had life. Even if they were paranoid. Paranoia takes up a lot of energy. But, after they had had ECT, they were lethargic, uncommunicative. It had just robbed them of the life, really. They couldn’t remember what they were upset about but they still had this Oh fuck, there’s something wrong with me feeling. From what I saw, it didn’t do any good.

“There was a girl patient I found attractive. She had dark hair and stunning eyes. I wasn’t being anything other than friendly. Nothing sexual. She was just a lovely person; very friendly. I had this motor bike and there was this rock concert nearby. I took her off to the concert; we had a couple of beers and might have smoked a joint, then I dropped her off back at the ward.

“The Unit Administrator had me up and told me: There’s no way you socialise with the patients and I thought Well, that’s a bit heavy. Yes, it was unprofessional, but I was only a porter, not a doctor. I wasn’t trying to take advantage of her. I was young and didn’t understand the consequences, the trouble I could be getting myself into.

“I don’t know if it was connected, but shortly afterwards I was sent to pick up the girl and take her to the ECT ward. And that was a killer because afterwards… to see this lovely girl with her soul ripped out of her basically. It was horrible.”

“Why did you leave Severalls Hospital?” I asked.

“After what happened to that girl,” said Martin, “I suppose I started turning psychotic myself so, in the end, I walked out. I didn’t want to work there any more.  I was conscientious, I think I did my job well, but the Head Porter kept having a go at me.”

“How did your bosses react to you wanting to leave?” I asked.

“They were all worried and freaked out,” said Martin. “No-one had walked out before. All the porters were either young like me or had been there forever. Those jobs were for life. There had been a few incidents of staff becoming patients. I used to have my dinner and tea breaks in the patients’ canteen because I found the staff canteen very stuffy because they had behavioural norms. There was a formality about it and I got… not panic attacks as such, but… In the patients’ canteen, it was like the bar in Star Wars. I just sat down and they loved me and I liked being there; I could have a laugh with them because, like I said, a lot of them shouldn’t have been in there.”

“Anyone who thinks differently,” I said, “risks getting labelled as mad.”

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Filed under Comedy, Drugs, Mental illness, Psychology, Surreal

What happened when I was admitted to a mental asylum when I was newly 18

I was born on Friday 28th July.

Just after my 18th birthday, on Friday 11th October, I tried to kill myself because of a girl. I have blogged about it before.

Obviously I failed and after I got out of hospital – as was not uncommon then – it was suggested I should go into a mental asylum. It was at Goodmayes, Ilford, in East London.

On Saturday 19th October, I wrote to a friend in Wales about it:

________________________

I never was any good at chemistry in school – I think I once managed to come next-to-bottom instead of bottom. I got out of King George’s Hospital on Wednesday afternoon. My underpants and one black sock had disappeared mysteriously while I was in there.

On Wednesday evening, I went in voluntarily to Goodmayes Hospital (the nuthouse) because I knew I wanted a rest and they thought I wanted help.

I was only there for one day because, on Thursday evening, I discharged myself, much to the annoyance of a point-nosed grey-haired man – a charge nurse – slightly balding, who filled in all sorts of forms and kept muttering about the extra work.

There was a secretary to the point-nosed grey-haired charge nurse – tall, thin and always reading intently – who laughed nervously at anything. He laughed loudly and shrilly. A really shrill laugh. He seemed like a patient, but he was one of the staff. The difference between the staff and the patients was that the patients walked slower.

Anyway, this charge nurse bloke was giving me what sounded like a prepared and rehearsed lecture on how I should not discharge myself and, at the same time, he was rolling a cigarette, looking down at it while he rolled it.

“You’re not reading it from the cigarette paper, are you?” I asked.

“Now why do you say that?”

“Hallucinations?”

“Well, it could be…”

I think that was why he was not too keen on letting me out.

He thought I might be seeing little green point-capped and grinning goblins crawling out of cracks in the walls.

When I had arrived at Goodmayes Hospital on Wednesday night, I had been very depressed. Very in the pits. They gave me a pill which gave me a surge into emotional elation. I did not really want to be elated but I had no choice. It was like a rocket taking off inside my body after I took the pill. Phwoeeeeeeehhh! Mindless happiness. I had trouble getting to sleep so they gave me two sleeping pills. The difference between the staff and the patients was that the patients walked slower.

The next morning, a doctor interviewed me at his desk in his room.

“You seem to explain it very well,” he told me. “I am talking to some students tomorrow. You can come and talk about your feelings to them so they can understand how someone like you thinks.”

The last thing I wanted to do was to talk to a room full of students like some academic lecturer. I wanted a rest. I did not want an audience. I wanted to be away from people. I realised they were not going to let me alone. I wanted a rest and they thought I wanted help.

I was in a ward with about ten people.

There was a queer bloke with glasses and smiling, intent eyes who had not had a shave that day. He kept going on about masturbation and had I ever let anyone do it to me and how good it would be. He was one of the nurses. He had started as a nurse in Goodmayes Hospital seven years ago, then left and been a clerk and a book-keeper and all sorts of things but then he came back.

“I came back to take care of people like you,” he told me.

When he heard I was discharging myself, he looked me deep in my eyes and told me:

“You’ll be back. People always come back. They think they won’t. But they come back.”

Also in the ward, there was an Irishman who read books about three inches from his nose and held them tightly with both hands and never looked at anyone, avoiding any eye contact with anyone else.

Then there was the hairy man with a torn pyjama jacket who lived in a triangular padded room at the back of the ward. They let him out for meals. He walked oddly, like he was doing it in slow motion. He would say: “Charles the First said it would happen,” and “Charles the First said he would never indulge it. He said he would never indulge it,” and “Harold Wilson Harold Wilson Harold Wilson Harold Wilson.”

And then there was the 20 year-old boy in the wheelchair who said he had a jaw disease.

“I’m in here because I have a jaw disease,” he told me.

He looked backward but I don’t think he was.

He kept talking about how he used to go mountain climbing and bog exploring.

“I used to like to go to quiet places and old ruins where I was completely alone,” he told me. “When I was outside. Before I came in here.”

He told me how he wanted to go camping and hiking. How told me how he threw cups and plates and bottles up in the air and liked to see things destroyed.

“I like to see things destroyed,” he told me.

He did nothing but cut out pictures of the athlete Lillian Board.

He was making a large Olympic chart backed by hardboard, covered with pictures of Lillian Board.

When I told him I was leaving that night, his eyes were like the sea without waves. He told me his girlfriend Evie, who used to live in Chingford, could not visit him very often.

“She has gone to live in Exeter,” he told me.

I gave him my address. I told him to write to me and promised to visit him.

When I left, the queer bloke with glasses and smiling, intent eyes was telling him about an isolated shed in the gardens outside the ward.

“You will be in here for a long time,” the bloke with glasses and smiling, intent eyes was saying to the 20 year-old boy looking up at him from the wheelchair, “And I will be in here too.”

_________________________

After I got out, I never wrote to the boy in the wheelchair. He never wrote to me. Other things happened.

Two years later, the athlete Lillian Board died of bowel cancer, 13 days after her birthday. She was 22.

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