Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

One man can change the world with a bullet (or six) in the right place….

(A version of this blog was also published in the Huffington Post under the title What Links Dead Comedian Malcolm Hardee, Gangster Mad Frank Fraser & a British Political Sex Scandal?)

My local handyman (who is a very interesting person; he was at university – UCL, London – with the mother of Kate Middleton, our possibly future Queen) came round to mend my side gate yesterday. He was telling me he hated reading Charles Dickens and could not understand what people see in Dickens’ writing.

“Just caricatures,” he fumed. “Just caricatures. But,” he continued, “Horace Walpole is worse. “The Castle of Otranto is utter shit yet people thought it was a great piece of writing at the time and they thought Horace Walpole’s name would be remembered. Now, quite rightly, no-one remembers him except dusty academics. He’s a footnote. Who knows which ‘famous’ people’s names are going to survive from the 20th century? It’s pot luck.”

Also yesterday, Bill Alford sent me a Facebook message telling me he had posted on Flickr ninety-five… count ’em that’s ninety-five… photographs he took in the years 1985-1987 at the late Malcolm Hardee‘s legendary – nay, notorious – seminal alternative comedy club The Tunnel Palladium.

In among the early photos of Keith Allen, Clive Anderson, Phil Cool, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield, Jeremy Hardy, Ainsley Harriott, Jools Holland, Eddie Izzard, Phill Jupitus, Josie Lawrence, Neil Morrissey, Mike Myers (yes, that Mike Myers), Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Screaming Lord Sutch, Squeeze and many others at Malcolm’s Tunnel Palladium, there is a photo of a trendy-looking gent captioned Johnny Edge.

All ninety-five… count ’em that’s ninety-five… of Bill’s photos are interesting – a nostalgic flashlight on an earlier comedy era – but the photo of Johnny Edge was the one which interested me most because I never met Johnny Edge.

I only knew of him by reputation.

He died almost exactly a year ago, on 26th September 2010.

He was just an ordinary bloke living in south east London, whom most people had never heard of yet, when he died, he merited very lengthy obituaries in the Daily Telegraphthe Guardian and the Independent.

In that sense, he was a bit like Malcolm Hardee.

Most people in Britain had never heard of Malcolm Hardee but, when he drowned in January 2005, such was his importance to the development of British comedy, that he merited near full-page obituaries in the Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, the Guardianthe Independent and The Times – indeed, he managed to get two obituaries in the Evening Standard and two in the Guardian.

Malcolm had told me tales of Johnny Edge coming to his comedy clubs and, when I showed the Flickr photo to a friend who worked at Malcolm’s later comedy club Up The Creek, she immediately recognised him:

“Oh yes. I recognise him. He was a regular. He always seemed to me to be on his own. I didn’t know who he was, but other people seemed to know him and treat him with respect, like he had been in known bands or something, He looked ‘reggae’ and he held himself well, maybe just because he was older and quiet. He seemed nice. I think if he had been in a rock band I would have heard which one, which is why I wondered how people were familiar with him… Now I come to think about it, maybe Malcolm always put his name ‘on the door’ so he got in for free. Logically, I think that is highly likely.”

When Malcolm had told me about Johnny Edge being a regular at his clubs, I could feel the slight thrill he had in being able to say he had met and, to an extent, known him.

Johnny ‘Edge’ was a nickname. He was actually Johnny Edgcombe. What he did in 1962 was the catalyst that triggered the Profumo Scandal in 1963 which played no minor part in bringing down the Conservative government in 1964.

Edgecombe had fired six shots at osteopath Stephen Ward’s mews flat, where Edgecombe’s ex-girlfriend Christine Keeler was hiding.

Malcolm’s barely-contained thrill at having a link with Johnny ‘Edge’ was the same thrill I could sense in him when famed 1960s South London gangster Charlie Richardson came to a party on Malcolm’s floating pub the Wibbley Wibbley. It is the same thrill some people feel if they have an even tenuous link with the Kray Twins.  I have heard more than one stand-up comic joke about the TARDIS-like capacity of the Blind Beggar, seeing as how most of the population of East London appears to have been in the pub the night Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell.

It is the thrill of one or two degrees of separation from important historic or society-changing events.

Malcolm had three degrees of separation from the Krays, which I think he always cherished and which is mentioned towards the start of his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (now out-of-print, but currently available from me via Amazon at  the remarkably reasonable price of £49.99 + p&p).

When Mad Frank Fraser, the Richardson’s ‘enforcer’ was shot in the thigh during a fight at Mr Smith’s Club in Catford, he was eventually left lying in the front garden of Malcolm’s aunt Rosemary and uncle Doug. The shooting was part of the bad blood and linked events which led to the shooting in the Blind Beggar which brought the Kray Twins and, to an extent, the Richardsons down.

Links within links within links.

To an extent, I share Malcolm’s thrill with one or two degrees of linked separation from national, international or parochial history. Everything and everyone is inter-linked.

Malcolm never met Mad Frank Fraser. I have and I am glad to have met and chatted to him a couple of times: the man who once lay bleeding in Malcolm’s aunt and uncle’s front garden.

Links within links within links.

Once, Mad Frank told me he worried “a bit” what people would say about him after he was dead, because what people are seen as being is ultimately not what they are but what people write about them in retrospect.

A butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazonian jungle really can change the world. Ordinary unsung individuals can be part of the chain that creates historic events. Or, to quote anti-hero Mick’s line in Lindsay Anderson’s trendy 1968 film If….

“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place…”

Or six bullets.

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The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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All good comedians are barking mad and, when alone, howl at the moon and eat their own egos.

(This blog appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

Yesterday I had lunch with a comedian in her twenties – not inexperienced but not yet fully supporting herself on her comedy performing. She is having an early career crisis. She’s no fool. Very sensible of her.

She thinks maybe she may be wrong giving up pretty-much everything in her private life to pursue her might-never-happen career.

She has little social life outside the one-night-stand Open Spot comedy circuit and (as she is from North West England) she is away from all the people she really knows and loves; she is alone on Planet Transient; she no longer has a boyfriend and she is struggling to make ends meet, working in a day job that bores and frustrates her. She does well, is playing lots of gigs but gets to bed late after her comedy work and has to get up very early to commute to her busy day job which allows no time to think about or arrange anything in her more-important-to-her comedy world.

This is the reality of one of the most glamorous jobs in Britain: being a comedian in your twenties.

“Perhaps I’m just wasting my time,” she said to me over lunch. (Obviously I was paying). “What if I never succeed and don’t get anywhere within sight of success? I’ll have wasted years of my life for no reason. I don’t even like London. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be. Maybe I should just go back up North, get a job where I can have a life, find someone to marry and settle down and have children and I know I’d be happy watching them grow up.”

I told her, if she did that, life would be less stressful but she would never know if she might have succeeded.

“If you try and fail, at least you will know what the outcome is.” I told her. “If you go home and have a happy life in tranquility with a husband and children – and that’s assuming you can find a good relationship – it will always be gnawing away inside you What would have happened if… You WANT to do comedy. It’s a vocation, an urge inside you…

“More than being a nurse or anything else. If you don’t play it out as far as you can, you will never know for certain what might have happened. On your deathbed, in sixty years, you will still be looking back on your life thinking What might have happened if… If you do not try, you have the certainty of not succeeding. If you do try, you risk failure – but you could succeed. It’s a toss-up between the certainty of failure and the possibility of success.”

If there is a safe option with an almost certain outcome and a riskier option, my advice is always to take the riskier option. Not knowing if you might have succeeded is infinitely worse than having failed. Taking the risk will at least bring closure.

Mind you, this may not be good advice because it is what I have done throughout my life. Once, in a rare job interview (I have usually not gone through application processes), the prospective employer sitting across the desk from me said:

“John, you seem to have an unfocussed CV.”

He took this as a negative factor; I have always taken it as a positive factor.

There is a Charles Dickens book (I can’t remember which – possibly David Copperfield) in which the central character, as a young man, stands outside a building and the narrative goes:

“I looked at the premises which, for the next 50 years, would be my work place.”

Times have changed, of course. But the ‘safe option’ can drive a truly creative person potty with frustration. You’ll end up walking through Tesco shooting random people with an AK-47. Figuratively if not in reality – and don’t be too sure it won’t be in reality. Uncertainty and adrenaline are attractive, provided you can eat and (in rainy Britain) have a roof over your head.

“But when will I know for certain if I have failed and when to give up?” my twenty-something chum asked me.

“Ah,” I said, “I haven’t got the foggiest. I am making this up as I go along.”

There are no right decisions.

When nerds in the mists of time first tried to program a computer which could play chess, they found it was impossible because the computer was unable to make the first move. The number of potential ramifications of the first move were and are virtually limitless. The computer would have sat there calculating potential first moves for longer than Ken Dodd’s career.

You can’t tell the outcome of any move early-on in chess. Nor in showbusiness. Nor in life. The butterfly theory comes into play.

No choice is simply between Path A and Path B because each of those paths then has literally hundreds of potential avenues which may lead off them. And every one of those hundreds of avenues each has itself hundreds of other sidetracks leading off them which may lead to a dead end or to a sparkling idyllic end result. It’s not a single path you choose; it’s a spider’s web spanning the rest of your life.

The way they eventually programmed computers to play chess was to limit the number of moves ahead which the computer took into consideration. In effect, the computer makes the best bet it can on the limited evidence available.

Choosing a ‘safe’ option may lead unexpectedly to awful consequences. Choosing a ‘risky’ option may lead unexpectedly to unforeseen opportunities which then lead on to a sparkling idyllic outcome which you had never thought of aiming for.

Comedy and successful creative careers generally have a terrifyingly high percentage of luck about them; they are about being in the right place at the right time. You can’t know where/when that place/time might be. So keeping as many options as possible open is the wisest move. Being in as many places at as many times as possible is the best option.

“Put yourself about a lot, love” is the best – indeed, only sensible – advice.

A risky proposition with an uncertain outcome may turn out to be a good idea further down the spider’s web of life.

So, if you are a girl in her twenties and I make a dodgy-sounding proposition to you, look on me kindly.

If you are an aspiring comedian, take my experienced opinion into consideration. You are almost certainly not as funny as you and your friends think you are. You will probably screw up your personal life and your mind by attempting to do comedy. And you will make no money out of it.

But I could be wrong.

To quote the often-misunderstood mantra of the great Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman in his essential-to-read book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING

He does not mean that people are equally ignorant. He means that no-one, however experienced, can know for certain the outcome of a creative work – or, for that matter, a creative career. Because movies, writing – and, yes, comedy – are creative arts, not a science.

The other factor I think you have to take into consideration is that, if you want to be a successful comedian, your mind is probably screwed-up anyway. One of the dullest of all mainstream quotes is:

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE MAD TO WORK HERE, BUT IT HELPS

To be a stand-up comedian, madness does not help.

It is essential.

All good comedians are barking mad and, when alone, howl at the moon and eat their own egos.

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Filed under Comedy, Mental illness

The woman who has stayed in a bedroom cupboard for over two years

Last night I had a somewhat over-priced snack in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a very pleasant place to be with subtle up-lighters to the vaulted brick ceiling and tastefully up-dated modernity out in the corridor plus a very emotionally satisfying circular glass lift up to ground level. It is a very relaxing place to sit and chat although, because this is the crypt of a church built in 1542 and re-built in 1726, the chairs and tables and kitchens stand on headstones and ancient bones including, I think, those of Nell Gwyn.

I sat wondering what Samuel Pepys would have made of this future world if he could see it. Pepys had a nude picture of Nell Gwyn hanging above his desk.

“What am I going to do with my mother?” my friend interrupted.

“What?” I asked, distracted.

“My mother. I don’t know what to do with her. She’ll have to go somewhere.”

“Where is she?” I asked.

“In the bedroom cupboard at home. She’s been there for over two years.”

“I know,” I said, trying to be sympathetic. “I had my father in the kitchen for about 18 months. I didn’t like to bring up the subject with my mother in case it upset her. Is there anywhere your mother liked that had a special place in her heart?”

My friend pondered this long and hard.

Dickens & Jones,” she eventually mused. “She adored Dickens & Jones.”

“They might think it was bad for business,” I said, trying to be practical while remaining sympathetic. “And department stores tend to clean the floors an awful lot. They’d vacuum her up.”

“It’s what she would have wanted,” my friend said quietly. “She was always at her happiest in Dickens & Jones. But it doesn’t exist any more. So, realistically, I would have to scatter her ashes inside John Lewis in Oxford Street. She liked shopping there too.”

“How about St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey?” I suggested.

My friend looked unconvinced.

“She would be among the great and the good of the country,” I re-assured her. “Nelson, Wellington, Chaucer, Charles Dickens, people like that… You could just go in and drop her surreptitiously in a corner when no-one’s looking. It’s all grey stone. They’d never notice and they must only sweep the corners and dust the edges of the floors by the walls every couple of centuries. I’m sure someone must have done it before.”

My friend still looked unconvinced.

“It would be like The Great Escape,” I suggested, trying to get her enthusiasm going. “When they drop the earth from the tunnel down the inside of their trouser legs.”

“Sounds a bit messy,” my friend said.

And that was that.

But I am still convinced it is good idea and deserves further consideration. We live in occasionally surreal times and have to think laterally to keep pace with reality.

Who would have thought a man would try to blow up a plane using a shoe bomb, that MPs would be going to prison for fiddling their expenses and that the European Court’s advisors would reckon it is against basic Human Rights to ban people imprisoned for murder, rape and terrorist offences from voting in an election.

Later, as I was walking through St Pancras station, my eyes accidentally strayed to the Eurostar arrivals board. The next three trains were from Paris, Brussels and Disneyland. I half expected to see Mickey Mouse get off a train hand-in-hand with Pinnochio.

Twenty feet further on, I passed an overweight man in his 40s sitting at a table. He had receding hair at the front of his head and a bald patch at the back. He was eating a croissant and was dressed as a schoolboy. No-one looked at him because no-one thought it odd.

In my train home, a middle-aged woman was talking to a stuffed meerkat. Neither the woman nor the meerkat appeared to have a mobile phone.

What would Samuel Pepys have made of this future world?

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