Tag Archives: Christian

What sort of creative creature is comic Dominic Holland, father of Spider-man?

What is Dominic Holland? 

A writer of books? A stand-up comedian? The father of Spider-man?

Yes to all three.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, an anthology of original writing by comedians which I compiled and edited with Malcolm Hardee. That’s the self-promotion over.

I thought I would talk to Dominic about his latest novel without ever mentioning his son Tom Holland – the current Marvel (soon to be Sony) movies’ Spider-man.

I failed.



“You encounter a homeless person and…”

JOHN: So, you have written five novels… and the latest, I, Gabriel, published a month ago, is about what?

DOMINIC: I have always been very exercised by homelessness. I have lived in London all my life. I used to do the Comedy Store and walk down Charing Cross Road and down The Strand and see homeless people and would give them money.

But I have a thing about hygiene. If I shake a homeless person’s hand, I start to panic. I would rather not touch them. I’m not ashamed of that. That’s just how I am. If you have no washing facilities, you’ve probably got excrement and all sorts of detritus all over your hands.

I thought: What happens if you encounter a homeless person, you shake their hand and they insist on sharing a meal with you. You don’t want to eat their sandwich, but you have to and you contract a food poisoning and it keeps you off a doomed air flight. Wouldn’t that be a great starting point for a drama? That idea has been in my head for 20 years and that’s the kernel of the story. Then I designed a character who had everything and I wanted him to have an epiphany.

The epiphany for Gabriel is that he is a man of vast success and vast wealth but actually has nothing.

It’s a 3-act book. The First Act is fleshing out his character. He is an unpleasant man. He is a very highly-paid, successful surgeon. A very rarified man, very bright. But he is lost to greed. Then he has this epiphany. He realises his life has been a sham, really. And then something rather extraordinary happens in the Third Act.

Where I am most happy abiout is that nobody – but nobody – has seen the ending coming.

JOHN: You are a Christian.

DOMINIC: Habitually. All my life I’ve been a Catholic. Big Catholic family. I have four aunts who are nuns, two uncles who are priests. My whole tradition growing up was going to mass. My boys were brought up Catholic and I like belonging to a Church. I like a feeling of belonging. I belong to the comedy circuit; I belong to the Catholic Church. But my faith, I’m afraid, is not terribly… erm… vivid. I like the punctuation of mass. I go to mass two Sundays in four. I use it as a chance to just sit there and reflect on my good fortune and what I hope to do for the rest of my little time on this mortal coil.

JOHN: Your boys were brought up Catholic…

DOMINIC: Yes. Four boys.

JOHN: What does your wife do?

DOMINIC: She’s a photographer, but she’s now giving that up to run a charity we started: The Brothers Trust. 

It has been going about 18 months/two years. We didn’t want to call it The Tom Holland Foundation. He has the platform to attract money, but we thought it might seem a little bit narcissistic and narrow because Tom’s brothers are involved.

The Brothers Trust family – The brothers Holland (left-right) Sam, Tom, Paddy and Harry with parents Dominic & Nikki

Using Tom’s cachet, we put events on and all the money we get in – less the transactional costs and the charitable costs in America – you have to employ American firms to administer them – all the money WE get, we then distribute to various charities. Our own remit is to give money to charities that struggle to be heard. Not to the big charities. To small charities and charities without the big administrative costs. We don’t personally want to support charities that have got vast numbers of people flying all over the world.

For example, we have built a hostel in India through The John Foundation, who basically take off the streets girls who have been trafficked and this very virtuous doctor and his wife house the girls and train them to become beauticians or overlockers. They get security and a skill and they’re also now making our Brothers Trust T-shirts which we are planning to sell and money from that will go to other causes we want to support.

We also support a charity in Kibera, Kenya, called Lunchbowl – they feed kids every day; we have bought them two 40-seater buses to take kids from the slums to-and-from school.

We support a charity in Britain called Debra which looks after kids with EB (Epidermolysis Bullosa), a pernicious disease where your skin is effectively like tissue paper – there’s 5,000 people in the UK with it. It’s the same number of people with cystic fibrosis, but no-one’s ever heard of it

JOHN: You have also written a book about Tom: EclipsedWhat’s the elevator pitch for that?

“For me, the story was perfectly-formed…”

DOMINIC: It’s the story of how a young boy is spotted inadvertently, finds himself dancing on the West End stage whilst his dad is doing comedy gigs in village halls… That kid goes on to become a movie star and his old man is still playing the same clubs he was 20 years ago.

JOHN: “Spotted inadvertently”? 

DOMINIC: Tom was spotted at a local YMCA disco dancing class and he ended up playing the lead in Billy Eliot in the West End… As I say in Eclipsed, it’s a fluke. The whole thing has been a fluke. A happy fluke.

JOHN: You say ‘village halls’, but you did play places like the Comedy Store in London.

DOMINIC: Yes but, John, you know and I know that, back in the day, I was mooted as one of the ‘Next Big Things’ – and it didn’t happen. And there’s no rancour on my part. I performed at the Comedy Store last weekend and I’m proud to be on that stage because a lot of my mates from my generation aren’t doing it any more. The fact that I’m still being booked to go on last at The Comedy Store means you’ve got chops. I would love to have made it. I didn’t. But, for the book, it’s a perfect juxtaposition. For me, the story was perfectly-formed.

My first novel Only in America was spawned from selling a screenplay. I did a gig in 1995 in Cleethorpes. Didn’t get paid. Long way. I was on the train coming home to London, cold. I had already won the Perrier Award as Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1993, I had been on television, I was becoming well-known. So I thought: This is rubbish! I can’t keep going to Cleethorpes for no money. I’m going to write a film.

So I wrote a film and sold it to Norma Heyman, who is the mother of David Heyman – He produced all the Harry Potter films. Norma Heyman’s husband John was a big-shot producer. 

Norma Hayman said to me: “You are the new Frank Capra.”

JOHN: Wow!

DOMINIC: I didn’t even know who Frank Capra was. I had to look him up. But I had these very exciting meetings in Soho and, over the next two or two-and-a-half years, I sold that script two or three times and then it fell over. But that story inspired my first novel Only in America.

Dominic Holland in Soho, London, last week

I then sold Only in America to the BBC and to Hollywood film producers. I went to Los Angeles and had meetings with Big Time agents who said: “This is great! We’re gonna make your movie! Frank Oz was going to direct; Bette Midler was going to be in it… And then it fell over.

So, when Tom started on his journey in the West End, it was a funny story in my head… When he was cast in his first movie (The Impossible, 2012) and was long-listed for an Oscar… THAT for me was a perfect story, because I had tried and failed and Tom was succeeding.

So I end the story on a Los Angeles red carpet with Tom being long-listed for an Oscar and I thought: Well, that’s a hilarious story. I had been spending all this energy trying to make it as a writer and become a new Richard Curtis and, with no problem at all, my boy was going: Dad! Watch! Over here! and making it…!

I finished the book when he was 16 and, since then, he has become a proper movie star.

I didn’t get films made. It’s a small nut to crack and most people don’t crack it and I am one of that ‘most’. But, being one of the ‘most’ and having failed, I was then presented with a beautiful piece of storytelling. Here’s my failed efforts to make it in Hollywood and then here’s my bloody son, with no efforts, BOOM!… and I’m thrilled.

People say to me: “Are you jealous?” and I think: Well, if you think that, you don’t know who I am.”

JOHN: Fuck me, well I’m jealous but, then, he’s not my son…

(BELOW, TOM HOLLAND, PROMOTING SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME IN BALI, AS VIDEOED BY HIS BROTHER HARRY HOLLAND)

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Director/sales agent Julian Richards on film finance, sales and making a profit.

Julian: “The tail doesn’t necessarily wag the dog”

In yesterday’s blog, Julian Richards – part film director, part film sales businessman – talked about the two horror films he made this year – Daddy’s Girl and Reborn.

In today’s blog, he puts on his sales agent hat…


JOHN: You direct movies but you also work as a sales agent, through your company Jinga Films. Surely film-making and sales are two different mind-sets.

JULIAN: It’s full of contradictions: sales and production. But it does improve your skills in terms of film-making and the tail doesn’t necessarily wag the dog. Making decisions from a sales point of view can be creative.

JOHN: Directing is a vocation and sales is a profession.

JULIAN: But I enjoy it as well, maybe because I have achieved a certain level of success with it, which was kind of unexpected. Also it provides me with a regular income and quite a degree of autonomy.

JOHN: You have said that horror films are better money-makers than thrillers.

JULIAN: Absolutely. Horror has a very loyal fan base. People don’t go and see a horror film because of the cast. They go to see the core ingredients of the genre. Whereas a thriller needs a central cast member that is going to draw the audience in.

There are basically three niches in the mainstream movie market – there’s horror, Faith and sports documentaries.

JOHN: And sex.

JULIAN: And sex. Porn.

JOHN: Why Faith?

JULIAN: Because there’s an awful lot of Christians out there who will watch a film that is Faith based. And not just Christians. Other religions as well. A film like The Shack.

Prophets and profits are good bedfellows

JOHN: The Shack?

JULIAN: It is from a best-selling, Faith-based novel. I think it made something like $60 million in the US on something like a $20 million production.

JOHN: The rule-of-thumb used to be that the break-even point for a movie was 2½ times your negative cost.

JULIAN: Probably the same now. But another statistic is that it costs around $20 million to release a film theatrically in the US on 1,000 screens for the first week. So you can make a film for $100,000 but it is still going to cost $20 million to get it in theatres.

From a business and investment point of view, a lot of people talk about Box Office Gross… “Oh! I made a film for $100.000 and it made $25 million at the box office!” … But when you subtract $20 million for P&A – Prints and Advertising – then the whole idea of profit comes right down.

When somebody says to me: “The film made such-and-such, I am not interested in Box Office; I am interested in how much the film sold for to distributors via the sales agent. What really matters is the money that comes back to the sales agent from the distributor. That is the only money that ever comes back. The rest is consumed by marketing costs. What comes back is surprisingly small.

Right now, I think the sweet spot is around $300,000. That is what most horror films will sell for, outside of the studio system, no matter what the budget. So, if you make the film for $100,000, you are in profit. If you make it for $1 million, someone is losing a lot of money.

JOHN: There can be tax incentives.

JULIAN: Yes.. If you make a film in the UK, you make 25% back. If you shoot in Georgia in Eastern Europe, you get 25% back. But you can’t really make a film for $100,000 and expect it to compete in the market. What are you going to do? An anthology? A single location? It’s gonna look cheap and you are entering a very competitive market. There is too much product and the shelf space has shrunk enormously.

A few years ago, you might have been able to get a ‘found footage’ film or an anthology into that space. Now you maybe even need ‘cast’ because it’s become so competitive.

You need to find money that doesn’t need to be returned to the investor – which is usually some kind of tax deal or it’s…

JOHN: …money laundering.”

JULIAN: (LAUGHS) Well, there’s that and there’s a lot of that goes on.

JOHN: Can I print that?”

Julian Richards (right) directing

JULIAN: Yeah. I’ve been involved in a number of productions where that has been an issue. The question of it being ‘laundering’ or being ‘avoidance’ is another issue. There are a lot of grey areas with finance through the EIS and the SEIS and Sale & Leaseback. I have worked with producers who are now in prison, serving 9-year sentences for raising finance through tax incentive schemes that they thought were kosher but, retrospectively, ten years down the line, they have been the subject on an HMRC witch hunt. So it is scary.

JOHN: Elsewhere, you have said there is no real theatrical market for horror films in the UK, Germany and America. The market is really places like Vietnam.

JULIAN: Yeah. Latin America and South East Asia. The reason being that, in the past, these films never went to those territories, because the cost of a 35mm print was too expensive. Now that it has all been digitised, releasing a film theatrically in Vietnam or in Peru is achievable. It’s pretty cheap, apart from the licensing fee, which is a nightmare: they will charge a distributor $500 to use a digital projector which is really crushing for any independent film scenario.

JOHN: I’m surprised there is any theatrical distribution left. Surely everything gets pirated out of profit by Indonesian and Serbian and Western criminals?

JULIAN: Erm… You can buy yourself what they call a ‘black window’. In China, the Chinese distributors have to pay the pirates a sum of money to hold back the piracy of the film so they have a ‘black window’ to release their film.

JOHN: How long is the black window?

JULIAN: I don’t know. Probably about three months.

JOHN: I’m surprised the Chinese government tolerates piracy in such a sensitive cultural area as movies.

JULIAN: If you do it legitimately in China, you run into all sorts of problems: to do with censorship and the quota. You CAN get independent films through, but you are up against all the Hollywood studio films. If you are just doing transactional VOD, though, then all of those rules and regulations don’t apply in the same way, so it is possible to get a small, independent horror movie released in China.

The anti-hero of Julian’s latest film as director – Reborn

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Reports reach Britain of self-rape in Arizona and cunning stunts in Canada

Anna says that, nowadays, she does her best to remain incognito

Anna says that, nowadays, she tries her best to remain incognito

Yesterday’s blog was about the current Save Soho! campaign.

This blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith used to work in Soho.

Last night, she told me in an e-mail:

“I enjoyed the song about Soho. The Gargoyle/Nell Gwynn club at 69 Dean Street is where I met nearly all the people who befriended me in London. It was the first place I went to look for work and I got hired immediately and then found spots in the surrounding clubs.

“In Canada we mostly worked at clubs for one week at a time but in Soho, at most clubs, we did one show at a set time and then basically the job went on forever. It seemed like some of the Gargoyle girls had been there for decades! Some seemed to have done the same show for years.

Anna spent many years in very rude health

Anna spent many years in very rude health

“I spent so many years being a pretend nurse that, to this day, I refer to nurses as ‘real nurses’. I remember one exhausted looking woman dressed like a French maid who looked so bored, clomping in platform heels clockwise and then counter clockwise. She could barely be bothered to lift her feather duster. The men did not usually applaud, being busy with their rain coats.”

Anna now lives in Vancouver, somewhere I increasingly think of as a hotbed of oddities.

“Last week on the bus,” she told me, “I saw an octegenarian lady start punching a young man who had offered her a seat on the bus.  She was wearing a long pink plaid skirt, an emerald green beret and carrying a nice cloth New York Public Library bag. People on the bus, including me, comforted the skinny, shaken young man and assured him he had done nothing wrong.

“Meanwhile, adult education is developing at a good pace here. At a meeting last night I learned that local sex workers have been training the Vancouver Police Department as well as selected urology nurses – not in the same room though.

“We also learned about the situation in Arizona, where we were told there is apparently a new law to prevent ‘self rape’.

“Everybody looked confused and asked what that meant.

“A woman explained it is what morbidly Christian Arizona calls masturbation. She said the first person charged under the new law was a teenage boy whose mother called the police when she caught him wanking. The boy was 15 when it happened on 15th November this year and is now in jail facing a three to thirteen year sentence.”

Anna looked further into the boy facing prison for self-rape, which turned up in a National Report online.

She found that “if you Google ‘Paul Horner’ there are links to that name associated with Banksy and the same name has been used in other hoaxes.”

An ideal Christmas gift marketed for those of 5+

An ideal Christmas gift from Stop Masturbation Now group

Sadly, too, a Queerty website report that, in the US, the Stop Masturbation Now organisation – which claims to be dedicated to “educating the world about the dangers of self-rape” and which has an extensive website – has begun marketing an anti-masturbation cross for your self-loved one at the bargain price of $199… is an elaborate joke.

But it is good to know that well-planned and backgrounded cunning stunts are alive and well in the Colonies.

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Women pray for God to strike down feared UK comedy critic Kate Copstick

Ian Fox yesterday, at the Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh

Last night, after I posted my blog chat with Ian Fox about how he got attacked in the streets of Edinburgh, I got a Tweet from Ian Hawkins saying: “I’ve felt very unsafe flyering in Grassmarket sometimes.”

It’s good to know someone reads my blog.

I drove down from Edinburgh to London overnight last night with a couple of sleeps in service station car parks and, when I was somewhere around Milton Keynes, I got a phone call from Alan McEwen at the Edinburgh Evening News.

He had just read my blog about the attack on Ian.

The Edinburgh Evening News should be running an article about the assault tomorrow, in an attempt to find the attackers.

And, indeed, the Huffington Post this afternoon carried my blog piece about the attack.

So, with luck, the psycho yobbo duo of Edinburgh may get their comeuppance.

Meanwhile, I have asked Alex Petty of the Laughing Horse Free Festival to pencil in Friday 23rd August 2013 for next year’s increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at the Edinburgh Fringe and (I hope) have booked Miss Behave to compere, Andy Dunlop of the World Egg Throwing Federation to supervise another Russian Egg Roulette competition and Kate Copstick to hand out the prizes.

Although she does much more than that.

She has been a judge for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards since they started.

Although she does much more than that.

I ran a blog back in February this year headlined Top comedy critic Kate Copstick spends $2,500 on prostitutes in Nairobi, Kenya.

All the money donated by audience members after the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards goes to Copstick’s charity Mama Biashara. No money is deducted for any show costs nor for any expenses of any kind; 100% is passed on to the charity.

The Mama Biashara charity works in the slums of Kenya, setting mainly women up in small businesses to help them pull themselves out of the absolute poverty in which they are living. Copstick spends four months of every year in Kenya, mostly in the slums of Nairobi. Below is a diary extract from one of her visits this year. It may give an insight into Copstick beyond her being the feared doyenne of British comedy critics:

______________________________________________________________________

Kate Copstick spends four months of every year in Kenya

Wednesday

I meet up with Doris in Kawangware and we head for the next workshop. This time out in a place called Wangiki, about an hour from Nairobi.

Doris is looking uncharacteristically nervous and asks the women who meet us at the matatu stage if we should get piki pikis to the meeting place. The women say “No, no, we are meeting ‘hapa tu’ (just here)”. They point at a building just down the hill.

Turns out it wasn’t really that one they were pointing at. It was one about half a mile further on. Kenyan distances are very much like Kenyan time – having the elasticity of a bungee rope over the Grand Canyon.

As we walk down the muddy lanes, I am increasingly fascinated by Doris’ bottom. It is an extraordinary thing which moves entirely independently of her skeleton. With each step forward it sways from side to side with a very attractive fluidity. But I digress.

The room is packed with women and the occasional spluttering child. We kick off with the ground rules of Mama Biashara:

– The money is only for business

– Know your status

– Respect for all

It is this last that causes consternation.

I explain that Mama Biashara has respect for all races, colours, religions and sexuality. I do not believe in God but I am fine if you do. You simply cannot refuse to help someone on the grounds that their beliefs/colour/sexuality etc are not yours.

There is much chatter. I start the workshop.

There is the usual litany of disaster, illness, abandonment etc but a lot of these women have good business heads. And good ideas. We are getting along well up to about number 12, when the increasing din outside reaches a crescendo. I get up and look out.

There is a… let us call it a group… outside the house. Animated to say the least. They are not happy that I do not believe in God. They say my money is corrupt and they have been off to the church opposite to pray to God to strike me down.

Doris wades in and emphasises that no-one needs to take my money, I am here only to help and just because I do not believe in God, I do not care if they do. She asks if I want to stop the workshop and leave. I say, “No”. We continue. With some terrific women. Good business plans.

At around number 28, there is another commotion at the gate.

This time, the women have brought the heads of the local Mungiki.

They are (to be fair) the most feared gang/sect in Kenya.

They are (or were originally) very strict Christians. And many Kenyans wish they were running the country now. They are real… errrr… disciplinarians.

We go out and Doris explains again what we are about. I shake hands and nod along with what she says. The Mungiki ask if we are forcing the money on the women. I laugh. We explain. The Mungiki say that is absolutely fine with them and shoo the women away. The remaining women relax visibly.

The rest of the afternoon passes in financing, medication, back rubs, demonstrations of stretching exercises, nutritional advice and the usual whole nine yards.

I get an escort of about fifteen women back to the matatu stage. Doris suggests we leave ASAP. It turns out that Wangiki is not really the safest of areas. Doris says she was shocked by what happened today. She has been working with this group for three months and had not imagined they would pull a stunt like that.

I end the day munching delicious mutura (a sort of barbecued sausage made from goat intestine) washed down with a can of Tusker. With jelly babies for pudding.

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Filed under Charity, Comedy, Crime, Edinburgh, Kenya

Socialism? Religion? Self-help groups? They’re all the same…

“Some things we know we know… Some things we know we don’t know… Some things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Who said that?

No. Not ex-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

It was a 76 year-old American woman presenting a life-changing seminar last night. I am not sure if she stole the lines from him or if he went to one of these seminars and stole the lines from her; I fear it may be the latter.

“Life-change” was the object – “the freedom to be yourself” – You pay £375 for the basic course, £590 for the advanced course and, if you come into the “teens and young” category, you pay £390.

This was just an introductory talk to draw new punters in.

Provided I don’t have to pay, I am a sucker for these things.

On a rainy day in 1969, I went into the Scientology building in London’s Tottenham Court Road. They attached me to a box, asked me questions to which I had to give Yes/No answers but most of which did not have Yes/No answers and then they told me that I was adrift in life and confused but Scientology could sort me out.

I went to an American Christian preacher’s event at Earl’s Court during which he asked any people in the audience who were HIV Positive to come up on stage and he would ‘cure’ them. Some did. He touched them. He told them they no longer had HIV. He told people in the audience to donate to his organisation not what they could afford to pay but more than they could afford, because “God will provide”.

I spent around 25 years in TV promotions and marketing. I am interested in the techniques of persuasion.

I once got told I had definitely won a prize in a time-share company’s draw which I had not entered: anything from a golden carriage clock to a car and luxury holiday. I was interested to see how they could avoid giving me something so I went along to their Leicester Square office where, before you got the prize, you had to watch a promotional film and have a chat with a representative who put forward a surprisingly strong and persuasive argument as to why I would be foolish not to buy the time-share I did not need. Eventually, I got given the cheap carriage clock. I did not ‘invest’ in the time-share.

Last night’s seminar involved around 200 people, maybe 30 of whom were ‘guests’ like me. As soon as I arrived, the phrase “Happy Clappy” leapt into my mind.  I do find innocent American over-enthusiasm very tiring. Surely people must damage their facial muscles by smiling so widely for so long? All that optimism was profoundly un-British and lasted from 7.15pm-10.45pm. The real courses last all day – from ten in the morning until midnight.

The first words by the woman presenting the evening were “I missed you” and there was heavy usage in the first three minutes of phrases like “just amazing” and “such an honour”. I half expected the words “insanely great” to be used and to see the late Steve Jobs emerge with an unexpected new Apple product to enthusiastic applause.

And there really was a lot of applause – and the occasional Whoop! – over the next three-and-a-half hours. Happy Clappy it really was and I was clapped-out by the end of it.

I am not one of Life’s natural Whoopers.

I have nothing against Happy Clappy but it does feel un-British. I could never stomach The Price Is Right with Leslie Crowther, which last night’s enthusiasm faintly resembled, though without the light bulbs.

Instead of guessing the price of and winning prizes, you had to spot your real problems, spot or be helped to spot the immediate solutions and sign up there-and-then for the course.

Last night’s offering was really a pyramid scheme – current participants introduce friends whose lives can be changed – with the addition of a series of increasingly-expensive course levels.

It resembled many ‘self-help’ courses: they are basically substitute religions and are very big on “we are all your support team” language.

Someone said to me: “It’s a con,” but I am not sure I agree. There was some heavy selling going on. If anyone looked susceptible to joining then two, sometimes three people would try to convince them to sign-up for the course, with un-blinking eye-contact enthusiasm.

But I have seen that with born-again or new-born Christians. They have, they believe, found the answer to Life and have had their own lives transformed, so they want to share the joyful good news. I am even prepared to believe Scientology is not the evil world-devouring Behemoth it is sometimes portrayed as but just has lots of genuine believers blinkered by their belief in their own ‘Right’ness into doing occasionally suspect things.

Much like Tony Blair or Socialism. (I obviously do not link those two.)

In 1986, I talked to a girl in a bookshop in Pyongyang in North Korea. She had actually seen – in the flesh – not a photo – the real person – she had seen and been in the presence of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Her eyes shone like exploding supernovas as she told me the story. It was as if she had seen Jesus.

Socialism, I have always thought, is more of a religion than a political philosophy. Because Socialism has the true answer to life and, if implemented, perfection and a people’s paradise will inevitably follow, as it has in North Korea. If someone of a Militant Tendency persuasion meets a Conservative voter, the Conservative voter is likely to think the left-winger is misguided. But the Militant Tendency person will think the Conservative voter is evil.

Last night, thank God, conversion not extermination was the idea.

I was approached by a very likeable, wide-eyed young man from Slovenia.

“I wanted to travel,” he told me, “but did not have the confidence to travel until I did the course.”

“Where did you do the course?” I asked.

“Here in London.” he replied. “I came here from Slovenia to do the course… And now I am a photographer. I always wanted to be a photographer. I am going to India to take photographs.”

“How do you support yourself?” I asked. “Do you sell the photographs?”

“I have a job working in Starbucks,” he told me.

In religion, people take comfort from the fact they ‘know’ that there are High Priests with a better – indeed, total – knowledge of how the world works and how you can reach that high, ultimate plateau of spiritual and philosophical attainment.

Last night was a religious ceremony with a teacher who was selling courses not a Church or a political party.

“You are already powerful, it just got covered over; you are already free, you just forgot,” was one line.

“You are powerful in the face of failure.”

“When you get balance, you’re able to walk.”

“Make a difference to everyone, including yourself… Everyone wins.”

As in some churches, people in the audience stood up to “share” and to give testimony:

“I realised that I have a very large family and it’s seven billion strong!”

“As soon as you start spending, money comes in!”

“I cured my asthma!”

As the woman leading the meeting said: “This is a miracle space… Your sharing tonight was breathtaking to me… Don’t forget, kick the ‘but’ out of your life and put your butt on the line.”

The basic message of the course is: “No action… No result.”

Fair enough.

And it is probably worth £360 for some people to have a support group to encourage them. There is an attraction in fluent speakers for insecure people adrift in their own lives. But it is not for me.

And I have a nasty feeling that, in order to re-build a stronger person, you have to break-down the insecure person who was previously there. Once you have a support group, how do you kick the habit?

It sounds a tad like training a dog. By the time the dog understands what he is supposed to do, he has become dependent on you.

Someone I met said his life had been totally changed in three days by the course.

But he also told me he started the course in 2006 and he is still doing it.

And I do find it unsettling that they have courses for 8-12 year olds.

I did once suggest to the comedian Simon Munnery that he and I should start a religion by reading lots of self-help books and cobbling all the ideas into a philosophy. It worked for L.Ron Hubbard.

Simon turned me down. I think he was wrong.

I am sure the idea still has mileage.

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18 years ago in Southern Lebanon…

The Lebanese Civil War (depending on how you calculate such things) lasted from 1975 to 1990. I have blogged before about being in Lebanon in 1993/1994. This is part of a diary entry for 3rd January 1994… exactly eighteen years ago today. At the time, Beirut was occupied by Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ forces:

* * *

The currency here is the Lebanese pound (L£).

I was told today that an official ‘taxi’ in Beirut will cost me L£5,000 but, if I get any other cab, it will cost only L£1,000. All the official taxis are Mercedes-Benzes marked ‘taxi’. And all the ‘other cabs’ are unmarked Mercedes-Benzes.

This morning, leaving Beirut, there was a solid, un-moving rush-hour traffic-jam of Mercedes-Benzes entering the city.

As we left, I asked about a shelled hotel nearby. It was not shelled in the recent Troubles, I was told: it had been half-built when the Israelis shelled it back in 1984.

We left through the southern suburbs, heading towards Israel.

On lamp posts, there are big 15-ft high cut-outs of the Ayatollah and others raising their hand in greeting or perhaps blessing. At one point there was a little community of oblong-shaped tents by the roadside. My driver told me with distaste that they were “gypsies” and, during the Troubles, there had been a famous massacre of them. I thought I must have misunderstood and that he meant the massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila ‘refugee camps’ because, at this point, we were near them. But he reiterated these were “gypsies from Greater Syria”. He did not specify if he thought Greater Syria included Lebanon.

Further along the road, we passed a group of about ten men in the wide central reservation. One man was in the process of swinging a tyre iron  at another. Perhaps if you have become used to satisfying bursts of anger with bursts of machine gun fire and then peace comes along….it must be difficult to stop anger bubbling over into violence. He was swinging the tyre iron at the other man’s head. We had passed before it made contact or the man ducked: I will never know what the outcome was.

Yesterday, on a road in the Bekaa Valley, I saw someone pushing a vehicle which had broken down. He became annoyed by the car behind him in slow-moving traffic. He just turned round, put his hand on the car’s bonnet and did nothing for all of a very long ten seconds. Just a long, long, very hard, unblinking stare at the driver of the car. Then he turned back and carried on pushing his broken-down vehicle.

Further down the coast this morning, we passed through an area where all the scattered buildings on both sides of the road had been blown up. I asked if the Israelis had done this and was told, no, the Lebanese government had done it in 1984. Christians fleeing Beirut had tried to resettle in the houses in this previously Moslem rural area. The government did not want to risk unsettling traditional religious areas, so blew up the houses to prevent the Christian refugees settling there.

Still further south down the coast, there started to be a more visible military presence: three tanks dug-in at one point – two with guns out to sea, one pointing South down the road towards Israel.

As we entered Sidon, there was a flurry of checkpoints. Generally there are checkpoints every 5-minutes or so as you drive along a road. As we entered Sidon, there were three within 100 yards.

As we passed through the town, there was what looked like a poster of British Radio One DJ Dave Lee Travis in a turban and a banner on the other side of the road in Arabic with some words in English – INDECENT PROPOSAL – ROBERT REDFORD. What on earth do the Islamic Fundamentalists make of this? I wondered.

Overlooking Sidon on a hill, there was a giant statue of the Virgin Mary standing on top of a large cone. An interesting concept. And, on a facing hill, a mosque.

Sidon is a Christian town.

As we looked at the statue of the Virgin Mary, a jet flew low over a nearby hill to the east.

“Israeli plane,” my driver told me.

Then we were off southwards again.

In a small town/village by a river and the inevitable checkpoint was a 40 ft high orange monument which, at first sight, seemed to be a crescent but was actually a grey hand holding aloft an orange scythe. It was a memorial to a boy who mounted a successful suicide attack on the Israeli Army. Towards the bottom of the monument was a banner: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING SOUTH LEBANON.

South Lebanon is noticeably different to the northern part of the country. The south seems less bleak, greener, with more trees plus banana and orange plantations etc. Also, the military checkpoints seem more serious with tanks and/or armoured personnel carriers plus artillery either dug in by the roadside or standing by the checkpoints themselves. The soldiers, rather than wearing just uniforms, are in full battledress with pouches round their belts, knives sheathed in the small of their backs.

As always, some checkpoints are Syrian, some Lebanese.

The Lebanese Army, strangely, seem to have better weaponry than the Syrian Army. The Lebanese (but what do I know?) have weapons that look like Armalites. The Syrians have less substantial, more basic-looking automatic guns.

When we entered Tyre (about 20 km from the international border with Israel and about 10 km from the start of the Israelis’ self-declared “Security Zone”), there was a Lebanese Army patrol walking down both sides of the road, looking around, rifles held horizontally. In another part of the city, I saw two UN soldiers. The UN has been in Tyre since 1978. With little effect.

The reason I went to Tyre was to see a massive 20,000 seat Ben-Hur style Roman stadium. Well, in fact, there is almost nothing left. But you could see the size and shape and, from some 1960s reconstruction, get an impression of what it must have felt like.

Massive.

To be there when it was built and operating… well… you must have felt the Roman Empire was so unimaginably mighty it would never end.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings indeed.

The gigantic standing temples at Baalbek must have awed the local peasants. Just these remains of the arena at Tyre awed me.

I guess all civilisations seem like they will never end.

But they do.

I used to have a company called Shivadance Productions. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is the god of destruction, but also of creation. The Dance of Shiva creates a new world out of destruction. You cannot destroy anything without creating something new. You cannot create anything new without destroying what was there before.

The world turns.

We drove back to Sidon and its Crusader castle defending the port. Then back to Beirut, where it started to rain.

I had decided to get dropped off at Verdun Plaza, an expensive new apartment block with three floors of ultra-modern plush shops below. Very plush. All marble and expensive trimmings. Then I went off to the main shopping street and the downpour started in earnest. The rain was bouncing: it was not rain but little hailstones. After that, for about 15 minutes, it became giant white hailstones thumping down onto the streets, making people scurry for cover. Then came deafening thunder and lightning.

At the moment, Beirut has no proper drainage/sewer system so, in downpours, the water builds up on the streets.

The day was rounded off nicely by seeing a sign which read:

NEW PERFECT HOME: THIS WAY

The sign was leaning against the boot of a gleaming new Mercedes-Benz.

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Beirut, 1st January 1994

The Lebanese Civil War (depending on how you calculate such things) lasted from 1975 to 1990.

I was in Beirut on 1st January, 1994. This is part of a diary entry:

As I sit here writing in my Beirut hotel, there’s a humdinger of a family argument going on in the next room.

This morning, a guide took me round what used to be the centre of Beirut, passing the gutted Hotel St George and the pockmarked shell of what used to be the Holiday Inn, winding through what used to be streets, lined now with the cratered shells of concrete buildings. If I hadn’t expected this level of total destruction, I would have been shocked.

The city is fairly normal and then suddenly – and I mean suddenly – you are on another planet in another time. It is as if most of London was fairly much as it is now except that the West End looks like a set for a post-Apocalyptic movie.

We ended up in Martyrs’ Square – the big rectangular one that used to be the bustling centre of Beirut when it was ‘the Paris of the Middle East’. There used to be grand buildings lining all four sides; limos and heavy traffic; vast al fresco eateries.

This morning it was a silent vast rectangle lined with ruins and, beyond those ruins, the ruins of other buildings in surrounding streets.

There’s an untouched Heroic statue in the middle of Martyrs’ Square and, nearby, a little nine year-old boy was selling pictures of the square as it used to be. An old man – OK, an old dirty man – was selling coffee from a flask which he poured into tiny cups. Plus there were maybe five chairs and a small table. And a disintegrating van nearby.

Imagine Trafalgar Square with a small statue in the middle, ruined buildings all around… silence… and only one young boy, an old man, five chairs and a decaying van.

My guide was maybe in his mid-twenties, intelligent, articulate and amiable. He used to be a student at the American University in Beirut. For four months, his lecturer was future hostage Brian Keenan. He says they went on strike for a week when Keenan was kidnapped. He hadn’t heard that Keenan had now written a book and got married.

He said the economic problems of Beirut/Lebanon are the government’s not the people’s. The people, he says, are middle class and there’s a vast service industry – restaurants, ice cream parlours and so on. This seems true.

There certainly seems to be a fairly OK lifestyle for most people, I guess, although there are also the people I saw last night in a former tower block with glass in their windows but corrugated iron for walls.

He says Lebanon will have some tourist problems in years to come because, unlike Jordan and Syria, it is not rich in historic remains.

This evening, I took my first solo walk around town; my guide said it was safe to walk along the ruined streets in the middle of the city but best not to go into any ruined buildings as some were mined – and not to go up side streets for the same reason.

He said there were three main factions who had mined areas during the Troubles and the Lebanese Army didn’t have maps of all of them.

I doubt if anyone ever had.

I couldn’t understand why the whole city hadn’t been messed-up by the fighting. The beach area is pretty unscathed but, when driving along, without much warning, you suddenly pass through devastation. It must be because the city was divided into West/Christian and East/Moslem. The devastation must be where the two halves of the city met but the sections further back from the Green Line, in one or other heartland, would have been relatively safe.

Southern Beirut, where I don’t intend to go, I don’t know about. That’s the area the infamous Airport Road goes through.

The guide told me one long street lined by lots of good modern buildings did not exist before the Troubles started. Ironically, a lot of building went on during the fighting.

There would be a lull. People would think the fighting was over. They would start to build. Then the fighting would re-start, but they would complete the building.

The lulls never lasted longer than a year.

Outside, I can see a poster for Omar Sharif.

In Lebanon, ‘Omar Sharif’ is a brand of cigarette. People presumably pop into a shop and say, “Give me 20 Omar Sharifs.”

Last night, on the coastal video screen, there was Omar again, apparently flogging carpets. I asked the guide this morning and he explained Omar owned a carpet factory.

It’s alright for some.

The argument in the next room has subsided now. The horns of the taxi traffic jams are still tooting outside. All the taxis are Mercedes-Benz.

I am going to have a bath now. The water from the taps is orange-coloured.

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