Tag Archives: Blanche Cameron

How I was responsible for the sexual awakening of a comedian in the UK

Martin Soan enters his living room last night in SE London

The Soan home is now sans bicycle but with added fox hunter

Yesterday was an odd day.

A couple of nights ago, I had a meal with my eternally-un-named friend at the home of Pull The Other One comedy club runners Vivienne and Martin Soan. The bicycle had fallen off the wall in their living room, leaving a hole in the plasterwork which they had covered with a painting of a fox-hunting scene.

Martin told me he had started playing table tennis regularly with comedian Lewis Schaffer on a concrete ping-pong table in Peckham Rye Park in South East London. The object was to get healthier through exercise.

I sent Lewis Schaffer an e-mail:

“Next time you play ping-pong with Martin, take three photos and do a random phone or tablet sound recording for half an hour maximum – just of you two chatting while you play ping pong – and I’ll transcribe it and get a joyous blog out of it.”

I thought it would be quirky to do a ‘report’ on something happening when I had not actually been present.

Yesterday morning I was in Greenwich and got a phone call from Martin at about 11.30am saying he was playing ping-pong with Lewis Schaffer in Peckham Rye Park at noon and did I want to come along.

I did.

It was a mistake.

God did not want me to.

I put my iPhone by the ping-pong net on the stone table (after checking it would pick up their voices clearly) and I let it record for about ten minutes while they exercised by playing ping-pong. The iPhone is an astonishingly good recording device. But only if it is switched on.

I had forgotten to put it on Airplane mode.

Lewis Schaffer (lefty) exercising in the park yesterday with Martin Soan

Lewis Schaffer (lefty) exercising in the park with Martin Soan

After a few seconds, without me realising, someone texted me. This switched the recording off. Lewis Schaffer and Martin had talked interestingly while they played ping-pong, discussing Lewis Schaffer’s favourite topic: Lewis Schaffer’s failure in comedy and in life. At one point, Martin lay on the table, beaten down by Lewis Schaffer’s negativity.

At some point, I re-switched on the iPhone recorder.

“I’ve got such low self esteem,” Lewis Schaffer was saying, “there’s nothing they can say to bring me down. This year, I’m going to call my Edinburgh Fringe show Lewis Schaffer: Success Is Not An Option. What was I saying?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t listening,” I told him.

“I know,” said Lewis Schaffer, “but you gotta record it. Stand-up comedy can’t go past where I’m going, because it’s post alternative, post mainstream. It’s like two train lines crashing together.”

I said: “You used the phrase ‘where I’m going’. Isn’t that a bit optimistic?”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Where I am. Where Lewis Schaffer is. What am I doing? Is it real comedy or is it anti-comedy?”

“OK, stand-up comedy, right?…” said Martin Soan. “I’m just de-constructing this like you want to…”

“I don’t want to,” said Lewis Schaffer, “but I know John likes it. I’m trying to give him what he wants… John – tell me what you want and I’ll say it. I’ll make it easier for you, John. Just say it yourself and say I said it. Nobody reads your blog when I’m in it anyway. I’m not Al Murray or Richard Herring. Is anyone interested in the stuff I have to say? What was your question, Martin Soan?”

Lewis Schaffer (left) tweaks Martin Soan’s red nose yesterday

Lewis Schaffer (left) tweaks Martin Soan’s red nose yesterday

“I’ve forgotten what I was talking about now,” said Martin. “Oh yes! Stand-up comedy in the traditional sense is telling gags with punchlines…”

“Which I do,” Lewis Schaffer said.

“…and you get a laugh at the end of it,” Martin continued.

“Which I do,” Lewis Schaffer said.

“So,” continued Martin, “take someone who’s not doing stand-up comedy but comedy – say maybe a man prat-falling or something like that. What’s funny about that? IT is funny because HE is funny. If you’ve got funny bones, you’ve got funny bones, which you have. And you’ve got gags as well. You’re just trying to find an advertising gimmick for your own…”

“No,” Lewis Schaffer interrupted. “You’re totally wrong.”

“You’ve got funny bones,” said Martin.

“I don’t have funny bones,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“You do have funny bones,” said Martin.

“I don’t have funny bones. I don’t know what that means, having…” Lewis Schaffer started to say.

“It means,” Martin interrupted, “that you’ve got… Whoa! Hey! Eeeeeehhhhh!”

Martin fell over. I think it was an accident. Maybe not.

Lewis Schaffer laughed.

We went to a cafe.

Lewis Schaffer had egg and beans on toast. I had a cup of tea. Martin Soan read the Daily Mirror. I left shortly afterwards.

Mr Twonkey: surrealist with a great voice

Paul Vickers last night in Soho – a surrealist with a great voice

Later in the day, I went to see Twonkey’s Blue Cadabra With Paul Vickers in the basement of Soho Theatre in London.

Paul Vickers is Mr Twonkey, a surrealist with lots of props and the impressive singing voice of an American rock star.

About 15 minutes before the show started, Paul came over to me and said: “I tried to persuade Lewis Schaffer to come to the show, but he said he couldn’t.”

“It overlaps with his radio show,” I said.

“I’m staying at his flat,” Paul told me.

“How long have you been there?” I asked.

“Since Saturday,” Paul told me.

“That’s too long to be with Lewis Schaffer,” I said. “It’s Monday now.”

“I know,” said Paul.

About ten minutes before the show started, I was unexpectedly joined by new wave architectural guru Blanche Cameron. I think she is stalking me. I keep bumping into her in comedy club cellars. There is no other logical explanation.

Chris Dangerfield (left) and Lewis Schaffer at Soho Theatre last night

Chris Dangerfield & Lewis Schaffer at Soho Theatre last night

About five minutes before the show started, we were unexpectedly spotted and joined by comedian Chris Dangerfield and a very clean-looking male friend. I thought Chris must be trying to clean his image up.

“I’m going to Thailand next week to try to clean up for my Edinburgh show,” he said.

This seemed an unwise destination.

He was wearing a black fez.

“Why are you wearing a black fez?” I asked.

“I had it specially made for me,” he replied, as if this answered my question.

About 15 minutes after the show started, Lewis Schaffer came in with his entourage Heather.

After the show, Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey told me: “John, you are responsible for my sexual awakening.”

“Am I?” I said warily.

“Well,” said Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey. “One of my sexual awakenings was seeing Kate Bush on Pebble Mill. “But the other was seeing La Cicciolina on The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross and you booked her.”

“Did I?” I asked. “I can’t remember.”

“That had a direct effect on me,” said Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey.

“Too much information,” I said.

Chris Dangerfield bids farewell to Mr Twonkey

Chris Dangerfield bids a fond farewell to Mr Twonkey

I went home. Lewis Schaffer, Blanche Cameron and Heather went off to Tufnell Park for some reason. Blanche told me it was another basement. Chris Dangerfield and his friend went off elsewhere in Soho. They seemed quite placid, not at all argumentative, but Chris seemed to think he might get the needle later on.

When I got home, there was an e-mail waiting for me from comedy critic Kate Copstick in Kenya. It said:

“Am mending. Meeting with the doctor tomorrow. Will tell when I can hope to fly back to Britain. Still a bit sort of generally knackered – dizzy spells and whatnot. But leg is coming along apace although letting go of either crutch is a long way off.”

But that is future blog.

Yesterday was an odd day.

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Who sees comic Lewis Schaffer’s shows repeatedly? Well, one is a green woman.

Blanche Cameron with Lewis Schaffer last week

Blanche Cameron and Lewis Schaffer this week

“I would definitely say I’m green,” Blanche Cameron told me.

“Like the Incredible Hulk?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “and, on dark nights or under stress, I do get very cross about things.”

My blog yesterday was about the endlessly fascinating – because arguably neurotic – London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer. But his audience is almost as interesting and varied as his shows are – and he has an unusually large percentage of people repeatedly coming back to see his Free Until Famous show which has been running at least twice weekly since 2009.

Blanche is a recent convert.

“Why bother to come back?” I asked her this week.

“Well,” she explained, “because, very often with stand-up, a lot of people have got a very structured set-up for themselves. It can be so constricting watching it sometimes. You just feel like it’s a tour guide taking you through a bunch of jokes. But, with Lewis, you’re on a cliff-edge the whole time and it could go horribly wrong. He develops a close relationship with each audience. The show is always different. But he also chooses material on the edge of what might be deemed acceptable and provokes a strong response. I love that because feelings, vulnerability, are still a big taboo. Lewis is happy to embrace discomfort and vulnerability and see what happens.”

“But you don’t want to perform yourself?” I asked.

“Oh no, no, no, no, no…” she said.

“So,” I asked, “when you were 14 in school did you just sit there thinking I want to be green?”

The National Theatre - not my favourite London building

The National Theatre – It is not my favourite London building

“No,” replied Blanche, “I thought I want to do theatre. I worked at the National Theatre for a while as a set painter. When I was growing up, I had done a lot of amateur dramatics, but I always wanted to do backstage stuff: set making and set painting. I worked at the Hexagon Theatre in Reading as a ‘follow spot’ (a spotlight operator). I once shone a light on Harry Enfield.

“The first time I did it, when I was about 17, they put me on something not too complicated to try me out. There was a waltz troupe from Austria. I had headphones on and they said they were going left – meaning stage left but my right – so I went the wrong way with the spotlight and the pair doing their waltz fell over in the darkness and I had to try to find them again with the light. They were very pissed-off afterwards.

Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) in Milan under construction. It will host 900 trees. Designed by Boeri Studio.

Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) under construction in Milan. It will host 900 trees. Designed (and photo by) Boeri Studio

“Then I did a workshop with Forkbeard Fantasy in the 1980s and they told me If you want to get involved in community architecture, you want to talk to Jim Monaghan. He set up the Covent Garden Community Association in the 1970s, so I ended up working there for a year and a half running it aged 18 because, when I turned up, the two women running it went Great! and went off to have babies.

“I had no idea what I was doing, but it was an open door opportunity. Best experience of my life. We ran a newspaper called the Covent Garden Independent News which was a bit Private Eye-ish.

“I loved drawing and making stuff so I thought Maybe I’ll do architecture. So I went to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh School in Glasgow. But I’m not cut out to be an architect. It’s actually quite dull. Well, it is for me. The two guys who ran the school were very modernist. They were into Le Corbusier and big concrete white blocks and I was all greeny and had spent my childhood going out birdwatching. I struggle because I’m not an aesthetic person and maybe that’s why I’m not an architect.”

“So what do you do?” I asked.

The Gherkin  - 30 St Mary Axe, London

The Gherkin – 30 St Mary Axe

“I don’t do anything,” said Blanche. “I’m not an architect, a developer or a planner or anything myself, but I’m involved in green architecture. I advocate for ecological adaptation, I teach environmental design at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth and a couple of other universities, but I am NOT an architect. I don’t care too much about aesthetics. I do to an extent. I think the Gherkin is a very elegant building; it’s like a Fabergé egg. I’m not an architect, but I’m interested in what buildings do.

“The cities we have built are not fit for purpose. There’s lots of beautiful things about them, but they over-heat, they pollute, they can’t manage storm water. If you get a downpour in the summer, the streets flood. Victoria station closes several times a year because really heavy rain can’t be managed by the Underground system.

“I would like to see us working more with Nature rather than fighting against it. We’ve had this idea that cities are separate from the countryside and we’ve separated them from the benefits we can get from Nature, which could reduce costs, cool a city and make it livable. Last summer, in the heatwave, hospital wards were being evacuated – the top two floors – because of over-heating. That costs a Health Trust millions of pounds.”

“Why do they over-heat?” I asked.

“Because it’s a hot day and their insulation and air conditioning can’t cope with it. But, if you put a green roof on that with a decent depth of substrate…”

“You mean grass?”

“No. People often think it’s grass or a horticultural thing, but what you want is bio-diversity. A low maintenance roof. Something that’s mimicking nature like a chalk grassland, like a wild hillside. You don’t have to go out and compost and maintain it. Not a rocky, bare landscape, but lots of plants and invertebrates on it.”

“What happens when it rains?”

Transport for London's biodiverse green roof on its HQ in Victoria. Designed by Dusty Gedge of GRC (Photo by GRC) 

Transport for London’s biodiverse green roof on its HQ in Victoria. Designed by Dusty Gedge of Green Roof Consultancy

“It absorbs moisture and, when it rains, it re-evaporates 40% of the rain so you’re reducing what goes into the sewer system by almost half and you’re alleviating the burden on the drains. And then you get the cooling effect. It’s cooling the neighbourhood because it’s evaporating. It’s cooling the building. And it can help filter the air, make it less polluted. A green roof does the job and it’s invisible. It’s a multi-functional intelligent solution to a lot of problems.”

“What about people having to mow the grass on the roofs?” I asked.

“You don’t have to. What you want is bio-diversity where the plants manage their own community.”

“I have read Day of The Triffids,” I said. “They might plot against us.”

“There’s no grass,” said Blanche. “If it’s well designed, you shouldn’t have to maintain it more than a couple of times a year: just go up there and see how it’s doing. Water is going to be the issue of the 21st century.”

“Not in Scotland,” I said.

“Nor in Wales,” agreed Blanche. “I’ve worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. But, if you look where the wall built by the Israelis between Israel and Palestine actually goes, it follows underground aquifers. It has nothing to do with religion or even territory. That wall is there to protect the water on the Israeli side of the wall, because Israel imports tens of thousands of gallons of water from Turkey every day. Water is going to be a major issue. Water is life.”

“In the 1950s, vegetarians were thought of as loonies,” I said. “but now it’s acceptable. In the 1960s, Chinese medicine was thought of as loony, but now it’s becoming acceptable. Is green architecture still thought of as loony?”

“Not so much,” said Blanche. “One of the problems with the environment movement has been – though it’s less so now – that the Greenies thought We have the Holy Grail. Everyone should come to us. We know the solutions. But, unless you are a vegan living in a cave up a hill, you also participate in the same mainstream society as everybody else. You’re just kidding yourself if you think you’re not.

“I work a lot with two guys – Dusty Gedge who wrote the London policy plan for sustainables and Gary Grant who’s an ecologist who designed the bio-diversity action plan for the 2012 Olympics. They’re doing the green roof on the Tate Modern extension and advising on the green roof for the South Bank re-construction. It is now in the Greater London Authority’s documents that the Mayor expects to see green roofs and walls integrated into buildings and developments wherever possible. Things are changing.”

And how is this relevant to Lewis Schaffer you, my dear reader, might ask?

It isn’t.

Did I say it was?

I worry more about the invertebrates on the roof and the potential plots of the Triffids.

There is a 50 second time-lapse video on Vimeo of greenery being built into the wall of the Rubens Hotel in Victoria, London. (Designed by Gary Grant of the Green Roof Consultancy.)

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