I was once peripherally involved in someone else’s non-fiction book – to repeat… This was a factual, non-fiction book.
The writer described a Northern bar which I guess you can best imagine as a traditional Irish bar. It was long, narrow and dark with almost no exterior windows. I actually went up to see several of the locations in the book myself – including this one – and it was an excellent description of the old-fashioned bar.
When the high-profile publisher (we are not talking about a minor publisher here) received this part of the manuscript, he took it into his head to ‘improve’ it.
So he changed the description to an open area with tables and chairs and the sun streaming in through the windows, making the drinking glasses glint and sparkle. He was, in effect, describing the lounge bar of a modern South East English pub, not the actual Northern bar which was being described as it was in the 1960s.
A verbal fight ensued over this change and other attempted interferences in the manuscript of this factual, non-fiction book.
The major publisher’s view was that not every fact had to be correct in a non-fiction book. I am not in any way distorting that opinion as expressed to me.
When the book was eventually published, it became a bestseller and not a single word or comma had been changed from the manuscript (except for I think one change, made for legal reasons – the book was read by two separate legal eagles).
The reason the publisher could not – in the vernacular – fuck up the author’s work was that the author was still alive.
My understanding of standard publishing contracts is that the publisher has to accept 100% of the text submitted by the commissioned author (unless they can claim the quality is not up-to-standard or there are legal reasons).
The writer owns the text. The publisher owns and can choose and change the cover and the blurb on the cover. As I understand it.
Pity the poor author, then, who dies. If the publisher can successfully bully the dead author’s estate, they can – in the vernacular – fuck up the author’s work any which way they want. Or the money-grabbing estate can try to (in their minds) maximise their sales by changing the author’s text.
Thus the furore recently over changes to Roald Dahl’s children’s books.
Augustus Gloop, Charlie’s gluttonous antagonist in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which originally was published in 1964, is no longer “enormously fat,” just “enormous”. In the new edition of Witches, a supernatural female posing as an ordinary woman may be working as a “top scientist or running a business” instead of as a “cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman”.
The word “black” was removed from the description of the terrible tractors in 1970s The Fabulous Mr Fox. The machines are now simply “murderous, brutal-looking monsters”.
Apparently Roald Dahl, when alive, threatened to never write another word if his publishers ever changed his language. The Guardian reported that, in comments made 40 years ago, he promised to send his “enormous crocodile” – the character in his eponymous novel – to gobble them up if they did so.
Now he is dead, of course, his work can be shat upon willy-nilly.
In the sensitivity reader-approved version of Live and Let Die, Bond’s assessment that would-be African criminals in the gold and diamond trades are “pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought, except when they’ve drunk too much” becomes – “pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought.”
Another altered scene features Bond visiting Harlem in New York, where a salacious strip tease at a nightclub makes the male crowd, including 007, increasingly agitated.
The original passage read: “Bond could hear the audience panting and grunting like pigs at the trough. He felt his own hands gripping the tablecloth. His mouth was dry.”
The revised section replaces the pigs reference with: “Bond could sense the electric tension in the room.”
Arguably, the publisher is not, in this case, wholly to blame. The Telegraph reports:
Ian Fleming Publications Ltd, the company that owns the literary rights to the author’s work, commissioned a review by sensitivity readers of the classic texts under its control.
The Telegraph understands that a disclaimer accompanying the reissued texts will read:
“This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace.
“A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
Sibling is Watching You! (Photo by Arno Senoner via UnSplash)
Somewhat bizarrely, references to the “sweet tang of rape”, “blithering women” failing to do a “man’s work” and homosexuality being a “stubborn disability” … remain.
I look forward to all the morally dubious sex and sadistic violence being removed from the James Bond books and their re-marketing as period travel guides.
Presumably there will also be revisions to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with ‘Big Brother’ being changed to ‘Brother’ or, as someone else suggested to me, to the more acceptable, less sexist and more Newspeak-friendly ‘Sibling’.
I wanted to be able to write as clearly as Orwell did.
He is not a great novelist (he can’t really do fictional characters very well) but he is a great writer, as his wonderful short essays show. I am particularly thinking of A Hanging and Down The Mine, details of which have stayed in my mind a lifetime later. There is one description in A Hanging (about the puddle) which I don’t think anyone who has read it can ever possibly forget.
Likewise, I think the most terrifying thing in Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the torture scene in Room 101 but the explanation by O’Brien to Winston of WHY he is being tortured.
Nineteen Eighty-Four also has possibly the bleakest final line – the bleakest final four words – of any book I ever read. No point looking it up – the emotional effect only comes after you have read the whole novel.
Orwell also explained why he wrote in – no surprise – his essay Why I Write and, in Politics and the English Language, he suggests six rules for good writing:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
A 1931 Soviet poster: The “Arithmetic of an Alternative Plan: 2 + 2 plus the Enthusiasm of the Workers = 5” exhorts the workers of the Soviet Union to realise 5 years of production in 4 years’ time.
Borehamwood view by Google with 96 pretty-much centred
I live in Borehamwood which is on the north west edge of London, just inside the M25, London’s outer orbital road. This is relevant.
I moved here because of the easy access. It is close to and betwixt three motorways – the M1, the A1(M) and the M25.
It is also on the Thameslink railway line (appallingly managed by the incompetent Govia franchise but extremely convenient). Trains run direct from Luton and Bedford (north of London) to Brighton (on England’s South Coast), connecting Luton Airport with Gatwick Airport and running through the middle of London, across Blackfriars Bridge, interchanging, I think, with every Underground line in London. And the trains run throughout the night.
Borehamwood (just to confuse visiting Americans) is home to Elstree Film Studios (which also hosts TV shows like Big Brother) and to the BBC’s Elstree Studios (home of the TV soap EastEnders).
What is strange is that it has had no permanent comedy club.
Philip Simon outside Borehamwood’s 96 venue
This Saturday, comic Philip Simon is opening the Borehamwood Comedy Club in the local Council-owned 96 venue, right slap-bang in the middle of the high street.
The Jongleurs comedy chain has staged a few sporadic ‘On The Road’ gigs at the venue. But, last month, Jongleurs went bust.
“I have always thought that Borehamwood is the perfect place for comedy,” Philip told me. “It was just a case of finding the right venue. When Jongleurs ended, the Council was approached by every comedy booker you can imagine, including some that have no links whatever in London or even in the South. But I think the Council were more interested in working with a local one-man-band than a big company, so here I am.”
“It’s a great location for a comedy club,“ I said.
“Transport is really important,” agreed Philip. “Elstree & Borehamwood station is the last stop on the Oyster (cheap travel) card and it’s very easy to get to. I did a gig last night in Brixton (in South London) and I got back to Borehamwood in 45 minutes – and that was three trains. Acts can double-up very easily.
“I genuinely think you can get top-level acts who would have opened at maybe the Comedy Store in Central London and be looking for a second show to close and think: Oh! I can get to Borehamwood in half an hour! Because of the transport links, there’s no reason we couldn’t get Brighton acts. It’s a direct train. The venue is a 5-minute – if that! – walk from the station…”
“And the trains run all night,” I said.
Philip has written for TV’s Mock the Week and Taskmaster
“I’ve heard a lot of complaints,” he told me, “about the way acts have been treated by promoters on the comedy circuit in general – not specifically related to Jongleurs. About how replaceable we comedians are and how irrelevant we are to the bigger picture. So when I found Jongleurs had booked acts here already, the first thing I said was: Those are the acts I want to replace themselves, if they’re still available.
“There was already a date booked in here by Jongleurs – this Saturday 25th November – so I took that and went back to the acts who were previously booked by Jongleurs and had been let down. I wanted to honour the bookings so the people who had potentially lost money were given first refusal on the new gig. There had been three acts booked. Two of them signed back up and one was busy elsewhere.”
“And the two are?” I asked.
“Lateef Lovejoy and Trevor Crook. I added in Geoff Boyz to close and I am going to compere it. In future, it will be that same format – One act / a break / another act / a break / headline act. And I will compere it.”
“How much per act?” I asked.
He told me.
“That sounds quite high,” I said. “How much are the tickets?”
“£12. The venue decided that. I have no control over it. The thing I am guaranteeing is that I will pay all of the acts on the day.”
“Unlike Jongleurs,” I laughed.
Are royal portraits all that comedy promoters care about?
“Well,” said Philip, “speaking as an act… the thing that really frustrates me is that I have done gigs where I have seen promoters walk off with a wad of cash and then refuse to pay you for 30 days after the event. I don’t have an agent and I don’t want to spend all my time chasing payment when the money is in the hands of the promoter. Whatever happens, the acts here will get their money on the day of the gig provided the gig goes ahead and they turn up. If, for some totally unforeseen reason, the venue cancels the gig, then the act will be paid a cancellation fee.”
“You don’t have a gig here in December,” I said, “because, obviously, 25th December is not an ideal date. But will you try to go weekly next year?”
“No. I don’t think there’s enough interest for a weekly comedy club of this level. When we re-launch in 2018, I am hoping we will take it monthly. What I might do is a monthly comedy show of this level and, in between, maybe another monthly new act/new material night. £12 a ticket is a lot of money to spend weekly and I’m not convinced that, by spreading myself so thin, I can give enough attention to the gig. Especially if I resident compere it.”
“You said of this level,” I pointed out.
“Yes. I would like it to be a high-end type of show. with faces that people will recognise and will represent the demographic of this area.”
“You could,” I suggested, “do a monthly Jewish gig here?”
“Well,” said Philip, “I did a show at Camden Fringe last year with Aaron Levene called Jew-O-Rama and maybe in this venue here we could do a once-a-quarter Jew-O-Rama. We were intrigued that it did not appeal as much to the Jewish audience as it did to the non-Jewish audience. The nights we sold out, there was a predominantly non-Jewish audience.
Philip aims to heighten the glamorous world of Borehamwood
“As well as the main monthly show, there are two things I want to do – one is the Jewish gig; one is a local gig. To find a way of supporting local acts. If the venue is investing in me as a local act, then there is a benefit in extending that.
“I could do the main show monthly, here. And then, in between those main shows, on alternate months, I could do the Jewish gig and the local gig. There are loads of comedians in the Borehamwood/St Albans/Radlett/Barnet/Shenley/Watford area – comedians of all levels. Newcomers and pro-level comedians.
“What I probably cannot do in the main show is to give stage time as many local acts as I’d like. Because they are all at different levels. The level of the main show at this venue has to be at a high level. But, if I can find a way of supporting local comedians with maybe a lower-level gig that is going to involve less cost and less administration… And there are other projects I would like to do such as maybe a quarterly charity gig and a Christmas show.”
“To be totally PC,” I suggested, “you would need a white male… a female… gay… black… and Jewish… You would need to have five acts per show.”
“I want funny,” said Philip. “The diversity will come with finding the right funny people.”
In my more pretentious moments, I think maybe this blog occasionally reflects subcultures in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
A few years ago, I went to see a comedian. He no longer performs comedy.
There was a small audience watching him in a small basement. About halfway through his act, he got annoyed with the fact his jokes and stories were not getting laughs. I started to record what he then said. I have removed anything which I think might identify him.
This is what he said. There is quite a lot of swearing in it.
Sometimes I go down really well. Other times it’s like drawing teeth. I’m so shit I’ve got so many friends on Facebook – so many so-called fucking friends – I spent £6,000 to get someone to build a fucking website for me. He done a Twitter page for me then, after one year, I had to sue him to get £2,000 back. Then I gave that £2,000 to someone else and he built another website for me and I spent a month working on a free e-book – three fucking people signed up for that and I knew one of them personally. The other two were at the other side of the Atlantic. That shows you how much people… I should just give up, shouldn’t I?
I should get a real job. That’s what I should do. Get a real job. But I hate having a boss. Bosses are cunts. Money is an illusion created by the bankers. People get work just to chase money just to get drunk at the weekend.
I’m only toying with you because, when you’re dying on stage, there’s only one place left to go – and that’s poetry. So are you ready for some shit poetry?
(HE THEN STARTS TO READ VERSES FROM A POEM)
That normally gets a laugh, so you cunts have got no sense of humour. I’ll continue anyway, because I love you from the bottom of my heart.
(HE THEN READS MORE OF THE POEM)
So far so good? Another four verses?
(THREE MEMBERS OF THE SPARSE AUDIENCE GET UP AND LEAVE)
Right, so only five people left.
(HE CONTINUES THE POEM TO THE END; ONE PERSON CLAPS)
At least he made the effort.
I think this should be my new routine. Actually it is my new routine. Clear the room of the annoying cunts. I hate people, you know that? I fucking hate people. You’re all a bunch of cunts. You all think you’re something special in this world. You go to your jobs and nobody talks about anything real any more. Nobody talks about love. Nobody talks about doing anything worthwhile. They’re all too busy watching Big Brother.
(HE STARTS SHOUTING AT THE FIVE REMAINING MEMBERS OF THE AUDIENCE)
What do we actually do that actually means anything? It means fuck all. You know what means something? Getting together… in… exploratory ways. Stepping away from the elite power fucking structure that’s in control of our lives every day and fucking getting together and fucking shagging each other. Experiencing ecstasy together. Using our bodies. People say we have DNA like chimpanzees and matriarchal women screaming women and they greet each other by rubbing their genitals together like this and they have sex to establish social bonds in the group and that’s what stops arguments. That’s what stops men from dictating. Having their balls rubbed. Oh, thank god for that! I don’t need to dominate to be an alpha male!
We’re like that. We’re fucking human beings. We’ve got a soul, we’ve got a spirit and we should start using it, in my opinion, because we don’t fucking do it.
(HE STARTS TO SHOUT)
What do we do? Comedy? We sit and we pretend to laugh at his shit! We don’t tell him it’s shit! We sit through the cunt! I’ve sat though hundreds of shit, but nobody sits through my shit! You guys are good, I like you.
(THERE IS A LONG PAUSE)
I feel better for that.
Nobody… There’s no love in this world, you know? There’s not enough feeling, is there? They say: Come and listen to my meaningless drivel that I’ve been doing for the past 45 minutes. I don’t want to act. I want to share myself with you. I want to give you everything I’ve got so that we can evolve out of this fucking hell that we’re all living in – this fucking dimension.
We should respect Mother Earth.
That’s why I liked my job. They offered me £30,000 to leave. I said: You’re offering me £30,000 to leave? You should be offering me that to fucking stay in this fucking shit hole. So I bit their hand off. My friend asked me What are you’re going to do? Haven’t you got any ambitions? – Yes. I have. The main one is to get the fuck out of this place, cos you’re raping fucking Mother Earth and I’m taking £2,000 a fucking month to do it. You all think you’re somebody fucking special. You’re all a bunch of moaning-faced bastards that the universe has thrown together to let you see a mirror image of exactly who you are so you can evolve out of it and get the fuck out of there.
But, no, they just continue with what they do.
I don’t like punchlines any more.
I like ranting.
I’ve discovered a new form of comedy.
It’s just ranting.
(HE STARTS SCREAMING)
Bollocks!… Bollocks, cunts and wankers!… That’s what you all are! There’s nobody does anything worthwhile!
Club owners put six acts on every night. OK, I’m shit but they won’t give me five minutes. No. She’s got her people; he’s got his people. They fucking use you. Cos that’s what everyone does in this world, isn’t it? They use you. Everyone uses each other. They don’t actually love each other because they don’t love themselves. That’s what it comes down to. Nobody loves themselves any more.
You can only love from what you’ve got inside and we’re all fucking brainwashed from the day we were born to fucking fit into the system, fit into that small square and be a fucking good servant to the power elite that’s been pissing all over us from a great height.
I mean, THEY’RE fucking psychotic criminals and we let THEM dictate to US so how fucked-up are WE? You know what I’m saying? These guys are not superhuman and great. WE are fucking human beings and we’ve got a heart and a soul and it’s brainwashed out of us by the time we’re six years old by watching television.
You know that box we’ve got? A hypnotic box in our living rooms every day?
We don’t take care of our children and educate them on the law and things that actually matter. We just sit them at the box and give them Big Brother and let them tell them what to think and what to buy and what to do all their lives and get up and get a job in their factories. Then eventually they retire and go on holiday somewhere in some caravan club for 20 years and die with their whole life never having one single original thought.
(THERE IS A LONG SILENCE)
That’s my new routine. I hope you like that.
(THE AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
Stuff like that. That’s what I’m going to talk about from now on.
(TWO PEOPLE GET UP TO LEAVE)
No, there are jokes coming. There are. Thanks for coming. Take care. Nice to meet you. Goodbye.
(ONE OF THE REMAINING THREE AUDIENCE MEMBERS ASKS: “Apart from that, how’s your day been?”)
It is a rollercoaster of a story and this is a humdinger of a production.
Just to re-cap, Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was accused by the News of the World of going to a swingers’ sex club in Manchester. Tommy sued for defamation, the newspaper paid damages, but then Strathclyde Police investigated, prosecuted Tommy for perjury at the original trial and Tommy was imprisoned. He has now, enterprisingly, in the last few weeks, tried to reclaim the moral high ground by painting himself as a lone hero facing the disgraced, Murdoch-owned, phone-hacking behemoth of News International.
So he’s an anti-hero? Is that why Ian Pattison chose to write the play and negotiate what was a potential legal minefield?
Ian Pattison at Edinburgh Fringe this week
“It’s the character,” Ian told me when I asked him this week. “And the story. It’s the story of a small political party that appeared to be on the brink of if not great things then considerable things. They had six MSPs in Holyrood (the Scottish Parliament) and looked set to build, but then they imploded when Tommy decided to take on the News of the World over these sex allegations.
“A wiser course may have been just to admit it, if he did it, – but, of course, he insists he didn’t – and take a year in the sin bin. That’s the traditional method of dealing with those kind of things if there is truth in them. But Tommy decided he was going to clear his name and took them on. And that was the point of no return. Once you go down that path, well, nobody can quite tell how things will unfold. But certainly from the SSP’s point of view, it was the beginning of the end for them. So it was that kind of trajectory which interested me.”
The play is fast, lively and funny – the story of a Scots ‘Tam O’ Ranter’… Ian has captured the rabble-rousing rhetoric, the sometimes meaningless sloganising and soundbites of a populist politician in full flow.
It’s a barn-storming performance by Scots comedian Des Maclean, gifted with a brilliantly written script. It is also a play of surprising depth about a charismatic real-life character in a story filled with almost child-like optimism and lechery.
“It was such a big story,” Ian Pattison told me, “and Tommy was such a popular guy. He managed to get his side of events all over the press, whereas his party co-workers – the other SSP people – were not as charismatic as a group and made a political decision that, if they couldn’t support Tommy, then they wouldn’t oppose him, which left a media vacuum which Tommy was able to fill with his own version of events.”
I, Tommy + SSP – Sex, Socialism, Perjury
There is a running motif throughout the play of Tommy’s somewhat eccentric mother singing To Dream The Impossible Dream, which pretty much sums up a story so OTT it would be ridiculously unbelievable if it were not true.
I mean, for heaven’s sake, Tommy went into the Celebrity Big Brother house with rap singer Coolio and Mini-Me from the Austin Powers films! You could not make it up.
The play is introduced as “an afternoon of broken dreams, backstabbing and treachery” and you could also add an awful lot of laughter.
Ian Pattison has only met Tommy Sheridan once – shortly before the play emerged.
“Well,” Ian told me, “I suppose you would want to get an idea of what it might be going to be like.”
“What was Tommy like?” I asked.
“Very polite,” replied Ian.
So far, Tommy Sheridan has not sued.
He is too canny for that.
Ian Pattison has cleverly avoided the potential legal pitfalls and Tommy Sheridan has emerged as a morally ambiguous anti-hero in Ian Pattison’s first Fringe production.
Why is it Ian’s first Fringe outing?
“At this stage of the game,” he told me, “I just wanted to see what else I would like to do and, never having done the Fringe, this seemed like a good opportunity. Probably not a sensible move for a man of my advanced years, but I seem to be still here and vertical, which is always a bonus.”
If this does not become a movie or a TV production, then Tommy Sheridan is not the fascinatingly charismatic (if ultimately failed) politician portrayed in this extravaganza of amoral egotism.
That is the reason this abnormally high number of foreigners have arrived in Pyongyang – to see the guaranteed to be over-the-top celebrations.
So what do the North Koreans do? They round-up all the foreigners in the country and bus them to a sparsely-kitted-out children’s amusement park on the edge of town so that they can be kept away from the celebrations.
“It will be a chance for you to meet the locals,” our guide tells us. North Koreans, like West Coast Americans, have developed no sense of irony.
Locals, of course, are sparse on the ground in the amusement park. There are smatterings of performing North Korean children, tour guides and North Koreans in black suits with cameras plus a couple of visible video cameraman filming the entire thing, presumably to show foreigners cavorting in celebration of the Great Leader’s birth.
The centrepiece is a little area towards the back of the park where ‘sports’ are put on… These largely involve cute children in national costume grabbing overweight foreign men and running round hand-in-hand with them in ‘games’.
A Swedish man says to me: “It’s Make-The-Foreigners-Look-Silly Day,” but it feels more like a paedophiliac school sports day held on the outskirts of Nuremberg during one of Hitler’s rallies.
I meet Russians, Vietnamese, American and many other foreign visitors wandering around, bemused although, oddly, the Americans seem to rather enjoy it. There are tens of coaches parked in long lines on the periphery.
Because the amusement park is isolated and fairly self-contained, we are allowed to wander around it individually and unsupervised , but one woman in our group is told: “Do not walk too far away” – ie don’t leave the amusement park – “because there are tigers and wild animals in the hills”.
This is hardly the most believable or subtle piece of crowd control and is akin to saying: “Don’t leave Trafalgar Square, the elephants may trample you to death in Whitehall.”
I wander to the other end of the amusement park, where a handful of ‘real’ children and adults are almost absentmindedly meandering. I have my camera out and I am taking a photograph of an unused children’s rocket ride – the irony of the North Koreans sending up a real rocket two days ago – when three small children of maybe 6 years old come up to me.
“You pay?” asks one, looking at my camera. “You pay?”
Nearby adults urgently call the children back.
They have not heard what was actually said to me. But the fact that the children were interacting with a foreigner is bad enough – dangerous enough.
North Korea is on a slippery slope.
Like all such countries, it needs dollars and foreigners. But first we have children waving at coaches carrying foreigners and seeing smiles and waves in return. Then children talk to foreigners. Then money gets involved. I doubt if any ‘ordinary’ North Korean could do anything with a US dollar even if they got one – let alone a child. But it is a short and slippery slope from this to the regime starting to lose Big Brother control.
In the evening, we are taken to the circus. You can seldom beat Communist regimes for perfection of performance and this is no exception. It includes a juggler who briefly juggles eight balls (it may have been nine); this is mind-numbingly difficult. I am never impressed by anyone juggling three balls but, as I understand it, juggling eight balls is six times more difficult than juggling three balls. No-one can do it for more than a few brief seconds.
Communists are never strong on promoting though.
“No photos. No photos. No videos.” I am told by an official who stays near me throughout the show; but some videos have escaped onto YouTube.
Everything is a big state secret, including showbiz talent which is a pity, because there is a jaw-dropping white bird act (I don’t know if they were doves or not).
The act is indescribably good, involving the birds performing tricks unsupervised and climaxing with perhaps ten birds being released from various parts of the vast auditorium and flying to the small female performer standing alone on the stage. Perhaps they even have the birds brainwashed in North Korea.
In the evening, at a tourist restaurant, a Western tour guide tells me that the North Koreans are anarchic. I had already realised this. Extreme Centralised Control = Anarchy. No-one wants to take the responsibility of making a decision in case it turns out, in some way, to be a wrong decision.
Kim Jong-un (left) watches the parade in Kim Il-sung Square. (On the right is Kim Yong-nam, the de facto head of state)
The reason foreigners were not allowed anywhere near Kim Il-sung Square, where the big birthday celebrations were held, was that it was partially a big military parade, but the decision to make it a big military parade rather than a jolly dancy-pracey celebration was not made until very late. Or perhaps it was made earlier but no-one even in the Korean bureaucracy was told.
After the parade, there is a massively spectacular and massively expensive fireworks display on the river bank opposite Kim Il-sung Square – we sit in a foreigners/Party restaurant watching it on TV – but, although it was known there would be a massive firework display, no-one knew exactly where or when it would be until the last moment. Everything in the country is either a late decision or a massive secret (for no real reason) or both. The culture of fear and indecision runs deep.
At this point, our North Korean tour guide senses that everyone is wondering why we have not been allowed to see the clearly non-military fireworks display which is taking place perhaps a ten minute drive from the restaurant. So, our meals still unfinished, he gets us all into our coach and tries to cross the bridge or, at least, get close to the firework display so we can have a view. But all roads and bridges are sealed off by the police.
Eventually, he decides to park by a road tunnel and, with the tunnel closed to traffic, we leg it through the dark to try to get to the other side. By this time, the fireworks display is ending or has ended and thousands of North Koreans are coming through the tunnel in the opposite direction. We smile and wave at them. They smile and wave at us. Some say, “Hello!”
I think to myself: “Slippery slope”.
These are not the brainwashed zombies of American and South Korean propaganda. These are just people who have been enjoying a good night out with friends and family. Never assume the pictures and news coming out of South Korea are any less mindless propaganda than the stuff coming out of North Korea.
It is a great mistake to believe that the North Korean people are under an oppressive yoke from which they wish to escape. By and large, they are not being forced into doing or believing anything. They mostly genuinely lap up all the ‘facts’ and information spewed out by the regime.
In 15th century England under the rule of Richard III, the people did not yearn to own a Toyota Land Cruiser, an iPod and Google on the internet for a cheap flight to Spain because that alternate world did not exist.
In 21st century North Korea under the Kim family and the generals, the people, by and large, do not yearn for the ‘better’ life which they do not know exists. They believe, they ‘know’ – that their cutting-edge advanced country is the envy of the world. They have seen their living standards rocket. They have seen electricity pylons erected in the 1980s; they have been told and have seen the Juche philosophy of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung sweep the world; and now some people in the cities have mobile phones.
When I was here in 1986, we were taken to the Library in Pyongyang and, as we looked at bookshelves, a photographer appeared, snapping away. Presumably our photos appeared somewhere later as British students of the Juche Idea coming to study the Great Leader’s thoughts in the most-admired country in the world.
North Koreans know they are blessed and are one of the most advanced nations on earth. They have seen the tall apartment blocks rise in Pyongyang; they have seen those mobile phones arrive in the country – around one million of them; they have seen that rocket shot into space two days ago with, atop it, the advanced satellite which is, even now, transmitting to the world songs in praise of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.
Truly, they know for certain that this is a people’s paradise.
In my hotel room, I watch TV coverage of the day’s events. The parades. The Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un watching from his balcony on high with his generals. His speech to the gathered tens of thousands in Kim Il-sung Square looks uncharismatic. His mouth is dry. As he watches the parade, there are cutaways to him, watching from the balcony. He seems slightly awkward, slightly nervous at first. But, as the parade progresses – from marching soldiers to lorries to armoured vehicles to tanks to rockets on giant trailers to a fly-past by five jets – he becomes more relaxed, more smiling, more happy. It is as if he is having displayed to him fully for the first time the toys he can play with.
He will have seen all this before but it is as if you can see, for the first time, the full reality dawning on him that he has all these boys’ toys to play with. He owns his own air force. What more could any young man want?
Also on TV, there is a celebratory stage production including a military ballet.
And the occasional, inevitable patriotic music videos develop into a sequence in which various world leaders – including President Putin of Russia, Fidel Castro of Cuba and American Evangelist Billy Graham – are shown in Pyongyang, coming to meet and pay tribute to the three truly great Leaders – father, son and holy grandson.
They come like the Three Wise Men came to pay tribute to the baby Jesus.
Because, as everyone in North Korea knows, the world acknowledges that the Land of the Kims is a truly great land. Other countries’ leaders come to pay tribute, just as lesser nations’ leaders came to pay tribute to the Caesars in Rome. Coming to North Korea, paying tribute to the Kims was and is like paying tribute to Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela all rolled into one.
That, I am sure, is what it feels like for North Koreans to see this on TV. Or it would be if they had ever known Albert Einstein and Mother Theresa existed. Who knows if they have ever heard of Nelson Mandela? Possibly only as a fighter against colonialist imperialism.
North Korea is like a young girl kept locked in a cellar for 25 years with no access to or knowledge of the outside world… except what her captor tells her.
The throbbing industrial heart of the mineral water plant
It is ironic that one of the most controlled states in the world is so anarchic.
Every day on our continuing guided – or should that be guarded? – tour of the the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we are told: “The itinerary has changed.”
It is in the countryside that you realise just how disorganised things are in North Korea.
An ox pulling a medieval plough is a rarity – possibly even a luxury. People sit using their hands on the soil. A tractor is as rare as a raindrop in the Sahara. Not unknown but still visually shocking.
In the cities, cars are a rarity. Even in the capital city of Pyongyang, where there is some traffic, vehicles do not exactly jam; they drip.
When one of our two ever-present guides realised I had been in North Korea before – in 1986 – she said: “You must see a lot of changes.”
I smiled and nodded a lie.
There seems virtually no change in 26 years. The monuments have got bigger. That’s about it.
When I was in China in 1984, people used to bicycle to get around. In North Korea in 2012, they still mostly walk. In the countryside. In the cities.
This is a very pedestrian totalitarian state.
Today, we got taken to a mineral water bottling plant to see the awe-inspiring strides North Korea has taken under the glorious guidance of its three great Leaders: father son and holy grandson.
The mineral water bottling plant, like so much else in North Korea, had a stylish look to it, but was not working. We were told the workers were “rehearsing for the celebrations tomorrow” of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday.
Plausible if odd, given that our two official state tour guides had organised the trip and, in the coach, had told us what we would see happening inside the bustling bottling plant.
Someone in our group had been before to the same mineral water bottling plant – a couple of years ago. It was closed then too. Back then, the story was that it was closed “for maintainance”. No visible maintenance had been happening. It was – and still is – the Marie Celeste of mineral water bottling plants.
Today, the gleaming, suspiciously clean machines looked un-used. We were told by the manager of the mineral water bottling plant that, each day, they produce 400 tons of health-giving mineral water – 10,000 bottles per day. Quick mental arithmetic makes me realise this mean that 25 bottles must weigh one ton. This seems somewhat unlikely. Perhaps they are manufacturing health-giving mineral heavy water for health-giving mineral nuclear bombs.
The manager tells us the factory’s water is exported to 1,000 different countries around the world.
Opinion varies on how many countries there currently are in the world. But it seems to be accepted to be between 89 and 196 countries. (What, for example, of Palestine or Taiwan or, indeed, Scotland?)
So, of these 196 countries, North Korea sells its health-giving mineral water to 1,000 of them?
Welcome to North Korean reality.
Perhaps many of the countries are not of this Earth. I could believe that.
If modern-day Beijing has a touch of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis about it, North Korea has the touch of a paranoid Walter Mitty about it. In that very real sense, nothing has changed since I was last here in 1986.
One of the most frightening parts of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is when the hero Winston Smith is being tortured and is told that it is not good enough for him to say he loves Big Brother; it is not good enough for him to say 2+2=5.
If Big Brother tells him 2+2=5 then he must truly believe that 2+2=5. He must know without doubt that the truth is that 2+2 really does equal 5.
In North Korea, people have no access to outside information sources. The trick is to ban the personal ownership of radios. The people have no access to foreign TV, no access to foreign publications or news sources, no access to radio except state-owned radio sets broadcasting the state radio channel. From cradle to grave, the truth they know is what the state tells them.
I do not know that Adolf Hitler existed. I only ‘know’ because I have been told in books and have seen him speak in old footage used in TV documentaries. But I do not from personal first-hand experience ‘know’ that he existed.
In 1986, the North Koreans showed us (its foreign visitors) a documentary film explaining how the Korean War started. As we saw in the film, the United States’ pet dogs the South Koreans wantonly attacked North Korea without warning. The valiant North Koreans fought back and pushed the South Koreans and the imperialist Americans back to the sea and the Americans begged for peace. The Americans did not push the North Korean forces back significantly; the Chinese did not enter the War and push the US/UN troops back.
In 1986, grandfathers and grandmothers would have been alive who remembered American troops passing northwards through their towns and villages; they would also have remembered Chinese troops passing southwards through those same towns and villages.
But, presumably, they could not tell their grandchildren that.
Because it never happened.
Their grandchildren ‘knew‘ from books and photos and captions and documentaries and museum trips what had actually happened in ‘reality’.
If their grandparents told them anything else, it could only be based on American imperialist fabrications. The only right thing to do, I presume, would have been to report them to the police.
Historical reality is what you are shown to have existed.
I know the aliens were defeated by an Apple computer because I have seen filmed evidence in Independence Day.
Yesterday, I drove up with a friend to see the first of Charlie Chuck’s two shows at the Leicester Comedy Festival. The Looking Glass venue was a bit like the Black Hole of Calcutta with laughs. The venue was filled to the brim.
Charlie Chuck is one of those comedians with a fan base that just goes on and on. I think it is because his first TV fame with James Whale and Reeves & Mortimer was among impoverished students who have grown up and now have the money to go out and see him live on stage.
Before he set off for the show, he cooked us one of his speciality spaghetti Bologneses. After the show, my friend and I scoured late night shops for a doughnut, a cream bun and a sliceable cake to share with him. Eventually, we got a cake and doughnuts filled with custard. Close enough.
He should be in the Celebrity Big Brother house. He can cook, he can hit annoying twats with his plank of wood and he could nurture ducks in the jacuzzi.
By the time I got home to Borehamwood, it was almost 4.00 am – just enough time to sleep, get up and listen to Janey Godley on Al Murray’s BBC Radio 5 Live show 7 Day Sunday where he introduced her as a “stand-up comedy actress and Groucho Club barfly”. Hardly a barfly, as she does not drink. They talked, among other things, about who should be the new England football manager.
Not mentioned on the programme was that, back in November 2009, when Scotland was looking for a manager and the press were semi-seriously touting Sean Connery for the post, Janey phoned up the Scottish Football Association and applied for the job
According to her blog at the time, she told them that she scored over Sean Connery “because I actually live in Scotland”. But her main qualifications, she argued to Scottish FA boss Gordon Smith, were that “I can order men about, I can actually play football and I am great at strategy – What’s not to like?”
“Do you have a valid coaching licence?” Gordon Smith asked her.
“No, but I do know ’Hologram’ Tam and he is the world’s best forger and he can get me one,” she told him.
The much-admired ‘Hologram’ Tam (I have a T-shirt) used to produce Janey’s Edinburgh Fringe posters before he was caught red-handed in his small Glasgow printshop which reportedly “had the ability to churn out £1 billion a year in fake cash”
Sadly, Janey’s football managing ambitions were dashed to much the same extent as ‘Hologram’ Tam’s hopes of grabbing as much money as the UK’s top bankers.
Ironically, Tam got a six year prison sentence for making money; but top bankers now get bonuses for losing money; and, with ‘quantitive easing’, the Bank of England is now in the business of printing funny money.
The Scottish FA accepted Janey’s application but foolishly never called her for interview.
I live in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, which can occasionally have its moments.
Last night, there was the weekly ritual of spotlights on the skyline and distant roars as an eviction went ahead in the Big Brother house. The house is built in the former water tank at Elstree Studios, which is why contestants entering or leaving the house have to climb up steps, go through a door, then go down steps again – they are going over the side of the water tank.
Sadly, I moved here a few years after the late night fire at Elstree Studios when Stanley Kubrick was filming The ShIning – the heat from the fire caused his polystyrene snow to rise and float, causing polystyrene snowfall over part of Borehamwood.
But yesterday was an ordinary day in Borehamwood.
I went for my annual check-up at the optician. Every year, I think my eyesight has deteriorated badly and I may be going blind. Every year, they tell me:
“No, there’s not much change: it’s just your age.”
Next week, I am going to South West Ireland and a friend, who has been trying to persuade me for almost a year that my rarely-worn Wellington boots are two sizes too small (in fact, they are a little tight but perfectly OK) got me to go into a shop to try on some new, larger, Wellingtons.
“Your old ones scrunch your toes up,” she insisted.
My friend can be very insistent.
“It was bad for Chinese women,” she told me. “And it is bad for you.”
I went into the shop for a quieter life, though I was slightly torn between that and wanting to go home and go to the toilet.
I tried on a pair of grey Wellington boots two sizes bigger than my current ones.
“Too big,” I said, relieved, thinking this would free me for the toilet trip home.
“We will try them one size smaller,” my friend insisted. “That will still be one size bigger than the ones you have now.”
“They don’t seem to be in green,” I said weakly. “They are only in grey. I think they should be in green because we are going to Ireland. It will cheer the Irish up.”
My friend was insistent: “I will go get an assistant and see if they have a green pair.”
Unfortunately, they had a pair. I put the right one on. It was a little tight to get on but, once on, it was very comfortable.
“That’s OK,” I said, grudgingly.
I put the left one on.
“They’re just the right size,” I said, grudgingly.
I took right one off. A bit of a struggle.
I tried to take the left one off.
It would not come off.
My friend tried.
I tried again. My friend tried again.
It would not come off.
I tried again. And again. And again.
It would not come off.
My friend tried, pulling the toes and heel.
“Careful of the toes,” I said.
It was a bit sore on the toes.
A shop assistant tried.
The green rubber Wellington boot would not come off.
At this point I realised I still wanted to pee.
Rather a lot.
A second shop assistant arrived, pulling me nearly off seat when he yanked the boot at the heel and toe.
“Careful of the toes,” I said.
“We may have to cut it off,” the second shop assistant said.
“Well, it might not be necessary,” I said. “I had a circumcision a couple of years ago. I didn’t think it was necessary; the doctors did. I eventually agreed to it because the doctors told me it would be no skin off my nose.”
I looked at the shop assistant. He did not laugh.
“We may have to cut it off,” he repeated.
My friend nodded.
My toes were feeling sore.
“I have a high instep,” I explained.
“Do you want to buy them?” the shop assistant asked.
My friend and I looked at him.
“The boots,” he said. “Do you want to buy them?”
He was not joking.
“No,” my friend replied patiently. “He would have to sleep in them because he can’t get them off.”
A third shop assistant arrived and tried and failed to pull them off. My toes were getting sore; there was what felt like a bit of a sprain on the ankle; and, every time someone pulled, I was having to hold onto the sides of the seat to avoid being pulled off onto the floor.
I was now desperate to go to the loo and all that rubbing and sliding of my bottom backwards and forwards on the seat had now aroused the back-up of shit building-up on my colon or intestines or wherever-the-hell it builds up. It was getting quite insistent about heading for the exit in both retail shop and bodily terms.
“Are the Wellingtons waterproof?” I asked.
“Of course,” the shop assistant replied, surprised. He looked at me: “They’re rubber Wellingtons.”
The three shop assistants went away to get the manager. My friend tried again.
“Careful of the toes,” I said, holding on tightly to the sides of my seat,
By now, a nearby middle-aged couple had stopped trying on new shoes and were just sitting back watching our floor show with considerable interest.
“I have a high instep,” I explained to them.
“If the assistants can’t do anything,” my friend said, “I’m calling the fire brigade.”
I smiled, though I was thinking more of a warm toilet seat and sausages.
“I’m not joking,” my friend insisted – and I knew she was not. My friend can be very insistent. She took out her mobile phone. “You have your leg and your foot stuck in a Wellington. The fire brigade can cut you out. That’s what they’re there for.”
About eight seconds later, the manager and third assistant arrived with a pair of scissors.
I thought of toilet seats and the movie Murder on the Orient Express.
The train remains trapped in a snowdrift as detective Hercule Poirot tries to figure out whodunnit. When the case is finally unravelled, the snowdrift is cleared and the train is free to continue onwards. I have always thought the symbolism was wonderful. I wondered if, as they finally released my foot and leg from my rubber prison, I would piss down my leg and shit would explode out of my bottom.
At the Edinburgh Fringe last week, I was talking to someone about the fame of Tony Bennett, the great crooner from the golden era of crooners. He even played Glastonbury because he is so famous as the great crooner from the golden era of crooners.
More of him later.
I got home from the bubble of the Edinburgh Fringe yesterday, where reviews and the number of stars each show gets is all-important.
Hold on. Was it yesterday I got home? No, it was Monday. My mind is fogged.
I got home from the Edinburgh Fringe two days ago to find The X Factorhas re-started on ITV1 or, at least, programmes in which vast auditoria are filled by excited punters watching the auditions for The X Factor… and Celebrity Big Brother is doing rather well in ratings terms on Channel 5, though I do not recognise anyone on it except the paparazzo with pink hair, Jedward and (because she seemed drugged out of her head) someone I realised was Kerry Katona (and because people keep calling her “Kerry”).
This demonstrates two things.
Edinburgh really is a self-absorbed bubble.
I am out-of-touch with Heat magazine.
And celebrity is fleeting.
That’s three things.
My mind is fogged.
But I do know there are two clichés of showbiz success.
One is the overnight success and the other is the scenario of plodding-away-for-years, ‘paying your dues’ and then becoming famous.
Of these, the overnight success cliché is easier to comprehend. Talent shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are like job interviews and non-showbiz viewers can understand that. Showbiz talent shows are like The Apprentice – which has the format of a glorified job interview – with added glitter and stardust.
To the ordinary punter, Michael McIntyre is an overnight success much like an X Factor contestant. It seemed like he was a total unknown one week and, within a month or so, he seemed to just come from nowhere to achieve what punters regard as superstardom.
But last year sometime (my mind is fogged) he said he did not want to crack America because “it’s taken me long enough to sort things out here and I don’t want to start again somewhere else.”
Whether that is actually 100% true and he doesn’t actually want to crack America, I don’t know. But he has certainly paid his dues. He was toiling away for years, mostly unseen, and has eventually succeeded through solid, dogged hard work and talent.
Many others with exactly the same degree of talent or more, also working doggedly for their big break are, of course, still toiling away and will never get even a tenth of one percent of the public recognition Michael McIntyre has received.
Michael McIntyre deserves to be successful.
So do many other equally talented performers.
So, perhaps, do some of the X Factor hopefuls.
But they won’t be.
Because talent is not enough.
Dogged determination and hard work is not enough.
Paying your dues is not enough.
The three ingredients for potential success are talent (not always 100% necessary), dogged determination and pure luck.
The joker in the pack is that many vastly talented people have a self-destructive streak. They have the seeds of their own failure within them.
One of the oddest problems is that many performers, confident on stage, are painfully shy off stage. This means they are terrified of self-publicity when off-stage. Being themselves is a terrifying thought, so they ironically do not want and/or do not understand self-publicity.
But without self-publicity, it is unlikely they will succeed.
And, as several years of Big Brother show, even with rampant self-publicity, celebrity is fleeting.
When I was very young, the biggest comedy and entertainment name on British television was Arthur Haynes. His scripts were written by Johnny Speight.
Ask most struggling professional British comics today who Johnny Speight was and they may know because of Till Death Us Do Part.
Ask them who Arthur Haynes was and they will look at you blankly.