Tag Archives: edinburgh

John Fleming’s Weekly Diary No 31 – Edinburgh cuts, digs, hugs and teeth

… CONTINUED FROM DIARY No 30

Machete Hetty demonstrates a fascinating narrative in her kitchen with her useful household utensils

SUNDAY 16th AUGUST

In the afternoon, I had tea with Machete Hetty in Leith. She had been going to stage her first Edinburgh Fringe show this year, but was outmanoeuvred by the coronavirus.

“You have never told me how you got your nickname ‘Machete’,” I said.

She told me.

I have told her to forget the show she had intended to stage this year and instead to stage this story at the Edinburgh Fringe next year – if the coronavirus allows.

It is a cracker of a narrative; she is a mesmeric natural storyteller; and, with the correct title, it would have them queueing round the block.

If I may be allowed to review the show before it has even been written, let alone staged, let me say: “Jesus Christ!”

Back in the old routine: Leith Walk dug up again, August 2020

Leith Walk is being dug up yet again for the tram extension. Clearly aiming to get commissioned as a long-running sitcom.

Edinburgh without the Fringe, not surprisingly, feels like Edinburgh off-season with just a few tourists (because of the coronavirus).

Just normal Edinburgh, in other words. There are always some tourists any time of year.

I have been coming to Edinburgh almost every single year since I was (literally) an embryo.

No overly-busy pavements this August; no Fringe show posters. So visually different.

Theatres have not had time to open. Cinemas, as in London, are open but look dead.

Bristo Square with the Teviot building across the emptiness

No Fringe events that I can see. (And I bought an Evening News yesterday – nothing.)

The Potterrow student shop and Dome in Bristo Square are closed (no students). The Teviot (the Gilded Balloon during the Fringe) was open but I didn’t go in. Bristo Square was empty save for a few skateboarders.

George Square was looking rural, green and tranquil.

Lots of people were sitting outside pubs and eateries last night, but they were locals or a dribble of tourists.

Lost Fringe advertising opportunities on the North Bridge…

The rebuilding of what was the St James Centre at the top of Leith Walk is STILL going on – this must have been going on for at least the last 3, maybe 4, years!

And the nearby North Bridge is being repaired. Apparently it fell down around 100 years and killed five people. I only repeat what I have been told. It has temporary wooden and plastic walls on both sides of the bridge ideal for Fringe posters (probably intentionally intended by the Council to get money in).

Because of COVID-19, I can hide missing teeth

MONDAY 17th AUGUST

I got home at 0130 after the flight from Edinburgh into London Gatwick. Very tired.

In the morning, I got a dental appointment – a cap had come off a dead tooth in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Rather than re-cap it, the dentist cut off the top and kept my plate (which I first got when I was about 16) until Wednesday. So I am now toothless at the front on the top.

It could be worse.

But, because of the coronavirus, I can justifiably wear a mask whenever I am out.

TUESDAY 18th AUGUST

In my local paper, the Borehamwood Times, columnist Paul Welsh wrote:


I was sad to read the death of 1960s pop star Wayne Fontana, who I saw in concert several times and who in later life was a character. I especially liked his 1967 hit Pamela Pamela.


Pamela Pamela was a hit in the Sixties. There is an online video of him performing it in 1985.

The phrase “who in later life was a character” drew my attention. I wanted to know more.

Apparently, according to Wikipedia, in 2005, he fought off bankruptcy but was arrested after police were called by bailiffs who went to his home in Glossop, Derbyshire. He poured petrol onto the bonnet of a bailiff’s car and set it alight with the bailiff still inside.

Wayne Fontana as Lady Justice (Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire)

He was remanded in custody on 25 May 2007. He later appeared at Derby Crown Court dressed as Lady Justice, complete with a sword, scales, crown, cape and dark glasses, and claiming “justice is blind”. He dismissed his lawyers.

On 10 November 2007, he was sentenced to 11 months for setting fire to the car but was released because he had already served the equivalent of the term, having been held under the Mental Health Act 1983.

Now THERE is a man I would have liked to meet.

Also the judge.

11 months sounds rather a light sentence for setting fire to a car with a person inside it… English justice at its most random.

Wayne Fontana’s group was called The Mindbenders.

Oh! The joy of having a full set of gnashers!

WEDNESDAY 19th AUGUST

I got my plate back from the dentist with the extra tooth on it. It fitted perfectly but was slightly uncomfortable. Well, my gums were not used to it.

I got a 49p McFlurry (ice cream) at the local McDonald’s. This is part of Chancellor ‘Dishy Rishi’ Sunak’s half price meals scheme Monday-Friday, to re-stimulate the UK economy after the economic shock of the coronavirus.

At Euston station, there was a loudspeaker announcement:

“Will Inspector Sands please go to the Control Room.”

I was sitting by an exit and looked around. None of the station staff seemed to be panicking. Nor running fast. I am still alive.

“Will Inspector Sands please go to the Control Room” means that there is a major incident in the building. They want to alert staff, but they don’t want to panic members of the public.

It comes, originally, from theatres, where sand was used to put out fires. It meant the building was on fire. But now it is used more generally in public buildings. Nowadays it is perhaps more likely to be a terrorist attack than a fire.

The announcement went round on a tape loop for about 2 minutes – a long time – then stopped. The only other time I have heard it was on a platform at Stratford station for maybe 20 seconds where, at the end, without explanation, it was followed by: “The test is now over”.

Adam Wilder, entrepreneurial big hitter and hugger

THURSDAY 20th AUGUST

At lunchtime, I chatted to Adam Wilder (formerly Adam Taffler) for a future blog.

He greeted me with a large hug.

A big hug.

A big, big hug.

Honestly! Theatrical types versus coronavirus distancing!

What on earth is one to do?

But NHS bureaucracy is even worse.

Bits of a terribly confusing time-travelling letter from the NHS

I got a letter today (20th August) from the Kidney Man sent to my GP with a cc to me.

It was a bit confusing at first until I realised it was written on 7th July, allegedly signed (no signature) and verified by the Kidney Man on 12th August and printed-out & sent to me on 17th August.

It referred to my medical symptoms and mentioned future treatment which is now in the past. I have received at least three  letters written after this one but sent before this one.

There is nothing like keeping up-to-date and this was etc etc etc…

The NHS is staffed by well-meaning, hard-working people, but all bureaucracies are incompetent and the larger the bureaucracy the larger the incompetence.

What would Archimedes have made of all this?

FRIDAY 21st AUGUST

It is a good thing Greece is known for its mathematical geniuses.

A local Greek restaurant is offering 15% off all food and drink Monday-Wednesday.

‘Dishy’ Rishi’s deal is 50% off food (but not alcoholic drink or spirits) Monday-Wednesday during August.

It would take Archimedes, Euclid and Pythagoras to figure out which offer is better value, taking alcoholic imbibement into account. As I don’t drink alcohol or spirits, the 15% deal would be worse than ‘Dishy’ Rishi’s deal.

A visual equivalent of trying to edit my words

SATURDAY 22nd AUGUST

On Thursday, I had a chat with performer Jo Burke for her upcoming series of online podcasts. I should perhaps have warned her that, although I am quite good interviewing people, I am appalling as an interviewee. I witter and wander off the subject. It sounds not too bad if you are talking to me but, combined with a speech pattern that elides words leaving no gaps, it is a nightmare – sometimes an impossibility – to edit. She discovered this today.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Mr Twonkey tries to plug his show but gets sidetracked by cheese and fast food

I had a very fuzzy talk with Mr Twonkey

I had a video chat with comedy performer Mr Twonkey (Paul Vickers) on FaceTime but I could only see him as a frozen, fuzzy presence.


PAUL: That’s just the way I look.

JOHN: Where are you? Edinburgh?

PAUL: Yes, on the shore at Leith in my windmill.

JOHN: Your windmill in Edinburgh.

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: You wanted to talk to me to wantonly plug your show at the Bill Murray comedy club in Islington next Thursday (7th February).

PAUL: And I’m at the Leicester Comedy Festival the weekend after that – Saturday 9th.

JOHN: The same show?

PAUL: Yes. Well, the same show with a different title.

JOHN: The last time I talked to you, there seemed to be a planned, linear progression to your shows. I was quite shocked.

PAUL: Well, to me there’s a plan, but people just think they’re… well, just… well… mental… But to me there’s a plan.

JOHN: So what’s this new show about?

PAUL: A conspiracy theory. The idea that all the weather we currently experience is generated in one small factory in the Dordogne in France. And the ‘front’ for it is a cake decorating shop. Behind the scenes, they are making weather, but it is mal-functioning. So I go to investigate. That’s the central crux… There are connections with Leonardo da Vinci.

JOHN: Which are?

PAUL: Apparently he had plans to re-invent the weather.

JOHN: Title of the show?

Mr Twonkey’s new show is coming to Islington

PAUL: My original title was Twonkey Turns The Umbrella of History, Meets Leonardo da Vinci and Explains Climate Change but, when I told my PR, the phone went silent. Now it’s called Twonkey’s Ten Year Twitch. She didn’t like Whizz, Weathercock, Whizz! either. Next Thursday will be the first time I’ve performed it. The other night, we wrote a new song for it because we were watching Neil Diamond videos and became inspired. So now there’s a new bit in the show about a temporary exhibition of Neil Diamond stage costumes at Luton Airport.

JOHN: Separate from this show, you have a new music album coming out…

PAUL: Yes. There’s a new Paul Vickers and The Leg album called Jump! There have been some problems on that with label changes, but I think what is going to happen is… Well, I don’t know what is going to happen at all. The main thing we’re focussed on is getting it finished. We’re mixing it at the moment. It takes a long time to finish a record because, when you get five grumpy men in a room, it takes a while.

JOHN: Are you going to tour with the band?

PAUL: Hopefully. But it’s a case of time and money. There’s a lot of things I would like to do. My play about David Lynch is ready, but it’s too expensive for me to do at the moment.

JOHN: Why expensive?

PAUL: I need actors and actors cost money. The last time I did a play – Jennifer’s Robot Arm – it cost me a fortune. The trouble with plays is the cost escalates. It’s like digging a hole and just throwing loads of money into it. Whereas, with a Twonkey show, there’s a limit to how much the cost can escalate because it’s basically just me and what I buy in junk shops.

JOHN: How is your good lady? Is she still making props for you?

“Somebody had a go at it with a screwdriver. Sounds strange”

PAUL: Yes. And buying me things. The other day, she bought me a xylophone that plays by itself, but I think it’s broken. It sounds wrong and wobbles a lot.

JOHN: But, then, so do I… Is it having creative differences with itself?

PAUL: It appears so. It’s quite rusty as well. Somebody had a go at it with a screwdriver but it sounds very strange now.

JOHN: It plays itself?

PAUL: Because it’s from the early 1970s, the way you program it is with a coil. It’s kinda like an auto-piano that you would get in a Wild West saloon. It’s very old and broken.

JOHN: But, then, so am I and, if you tweaked me with a screwdriver…. What else have you been doing?

PAUL: I made a little video in the western town in Morningside

JOHN: Western town? Morningside??? The very posh part of Edinburgh?

PAUL: Yes. Behind the library, there’s a street that’s like the Wild West.

JOHN: What?

PAUL: It was built for some advertising thing. There’s a saloon and a canteen. It’s like a proper little Wild West street. It used to be a dance hall; now it’s a street.

JOHN: What is the video about?

Mr Twonkey inside his windmill, holding quite a large cheese

PAUL: Cheese. How America lacks high quality cheese… American cheese is kinda plastic cheese. Was there ever a point where they tried to introduce European or exotic cheeses into America? I had the idea there was a time in the Wild West where cheese was more valuable than gold. So I’m trying to smuggle cheese and I steal the sheriff’s cheese and he tries to win it back. It’s very simple.

JOHN: What triggered you into thinking about the low quality of cheese in the USA?

PAUL: I just couldn’t think of any high-quality American cheese. In this country, every different region has its own cheese. And I thought: That surely must be the case in America; they must be making some kind of local cheese… but they’re not. Why not? But they love cheese. 

JOHN: Their showbiz can be quite cheesy. There’s Brie Larson.

PAUL: But does she generate genuine cheese?

JOHN: I don’t know her that well.

PAUL: There is no great American cheese. It is such poor quality that it can’t officially be classed as cheese.

JOHN: Who says?

Mr Twonkey – a man, a myth, a large sombrero

PAUL: The cheesemongers of the world. The Cheese Police. (LAUGHS)

JOHN: Is there some official supervisory cheese body?

PAUL: There must be. You can’t get away with just knocking out anything and calling it cheese. There must be someone who says: “Hang on a minute… That’s not proper cheese!”

JOHN: Is all this because American cows are below par?

PAUL: The thing about America is it’s massive. They’ve got snake farms. There are places out in the woods where they’re making things in a DIY homemade manner. You would think somewhere out there someone would be making high quality cheese…

You would think maybe someone with French ancestry would be thinking: I want to make a really smelly, runny cheese. But I don’t think there’s anyone in America doing that. I have Googled extensively online and the best I could come up with was Vermont Cheddar which, if you put it on a plate in France, they would say: “Well, that is… average.”

I have never been to Vermont. All I know is the Captain Beefheart song Moonlight on Vermont.

JOHN: Does Moonlight on Vermont include any reference to cheese?

PAUL: I don’t think he mentions cheese.

JOHN: I seem to remember cheese being a motif in previous shows of yours.

PAUL: It is. It’s one of the things I focus on. Certain things keep coming back: cheese, World War Two, escapology, engineering and witchcraft. But you Google American cheese. You’d be amazed.

JOHN: I don’t doubt it.

PAUL: The country that invented the cheeseburger doesn’t have decent cheese.

JOHN: Did they invent the cheeseburger?

PAUL: Well, they invented fast food. Have you seen that film The Founder?

JOHN: About Colonel Sanders?

PAUL: No, about the guy who started McDonald’s. Except he didn’t start McDonald’s. He went into business with the McDonald brothers and their original intention was high-quality fast food.

Michael Keaton’s movie as The Founder

The way they did it was they didn’t open a restaurant first; they booked a tennis court, got a piece of chalk and divided the tennis court into different areas for preparing different types of food, then employed staff who came to the tennis court and they mapped-out a kitchen and they were directing people round this tennis court to see who could make the quickest high-quality cheeseburger. Then they built a restaurant to the exact specifications of the tennis court.

JOHN: Didn’t the net get in the way?”

PAUL: I think they maybe took down the net. We have gone off-track…

JOHN: I feel there is a rock opera to be written about cheese and you are the man to do it.

PAUL: The Americans invented jazz and fast food… And that’s it… We are going off-track.

JOHN: So you are performing at the Bill Murray in London on Thursday.

PAUL: Yes. Twonkey’s Ten Year Twitch.

Twonkey… Another gig. The same show. Another title… A fez

JOHN: And then at the Leicester Comedy Festival on Saturday 9th February..

PAUL: Yes. Twonkey Turns The Umbrella of History, Meets Leonardo da Vinci and Explains Climate Change.

JOHN: Which is the same show, but with a different title.

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: And, at the Edinburgh Fringe, it will be called Twonkey’s Ten Year Twitch?

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: That seems reasonable.

… Mr TWONKEY’s MORNINGSIDE VIDEO IS ON YOUTUBE …

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Comic Becky Fury proposes marriage while chatting to me at a Pret a Manger

Becky Fury with stars in her eyes – well, one

Yesterday’s blog was about my first stage appearance at Martyn Sadler’s new comedy club in East London. Malcolm Hardee Award-winning comedian Becky Fury had performed there a month before – on its opening night.

I had tea with her at a branch of Pret a Manger yesterday afternoon. I thought we were going to talk about the new club – and we started on that – but then the subject changed unexpectedly.


JOHN: When I was at Martyn’s club, the audience was a bit rowdy. What were they like when you performed there?

BECKY: There was a stag party in one corner and they were getting the most attention. You know I have the horn…

JOHN: Yes. How did you deal with the situation?

Becky backstage at Martyn’s opening night

BECKY: So I have this horn in my back pocket which means I can squeeze one of my breasts and make a honking sound as I squeeze it. Audiences like it… I nearly turned that bit of my act into a full, very aggressive striptease to keep them quiet but I knew Martyn wasn’t allowed to do that. He has been told that his licence doesn’t allow him to have strippers.

I was going to do it, but then I realised I hadn’t shaved my legs, so I backed away from that, which was a massive shame.

JOHN: So how did you quieten the stag party?

BECKY: Natural charm.

JOHN: What was Martyn doing while all this was going on?

BECKY: He was round the back wearing his fedora. Hanging round the bar talking to people. You know what he’s like.

The Stables bar at Granada Television buildings in Manchester

JOHN: He was like that when I worked with him at Granada TV in Manchester. Always in the Stables.

BECKY: The Stables?

JOHN: The staff bar. What was your impression of Martyn when you first met him?

BECKY: That he is always an act. He is always playing the part of Martyn Sadler.

JOHN: You first met him in Edinburgh a couple of years ago…?

BECKY: Yeah. I met him and we ended up having a drink in a Wetherspoons in Leith and these two Scottish guys were giving me shit because I was swearing. They said they didn’t want to hear that sort of language. They were really nicely sharply suited and booted. I went over and apologised to them but they told me to Fuck off and that I was being rude.

JOHN: In those exact words? “Fuck off”?

The Wetherspoons at the Foot of the Walk in Leith, Edinburgh

BECKY: Yeah. In Leith Wetherspoons at half twelve in the afternoon!

JOHN: Some people have no sense of irony.

BECKY: Yeah. They just really pissed me off.  So I picked up a bottle of ketchup off a table and said: “Oh, it would be a shame, wouldn’t it, lads, if someone got ketchup all over their nice, smart jacket.”

JOHN: How did they react?

BECKY: They kind of freaked out and the manager came over and said: “Just sit down, right?” and it calmed down. But what Martyn did a few minutes after that was he got his glasses…

JOHN: His spectacles?

BECKY: Yes. And he got some ketchup, squirted it across the top of the glasses, put the glasses back on his face and walked past them on the way to the toilet and looked at them with the ketchup dripping down over his eyes and he said: “I told her to watch her language too, lads, and this is what she did to me.”

JOHN: And they…?

BECKY: They grabbed their fucking coats and ran off. Well, they didn’t run – but they exited sharpish. And that is why Martyn Sadler is amazing.

Martyn Sadler (top right) at his new club in East London

JOHN: You like his anarchic tendencies.

BECKY: Yeah. Maybe I should propose to him via your blog. He says he likes pranks.

JOHN: ‘Becky Sadler’ has a nice ring to it.

BECKY: Exactly.

JOHN: You would have your own club to perform in.

BECKY: Yeah. It sounds like a good match to me.

JOHN: A match made in…

BECKY: …Headinburgh… Will you marry me, Martyn?

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 26: To feel that tranquility amidst the Fringe adrenaline

Today, I did my annual trip up Blackford Hill, to the south of Edinburgh. The photos below are all from today. The one above was taken in 2010.

The reason I try to go up Blackford Hill every Fringe was explained by me in a book which the website Such Small Portions published in 2013. It was titled Secret Edinburgh, sub-titled A Comedians’ Guide To The City. It had contributions from over 160 comedians and/or people listed in the Comedy section of that year’s Edinburgh Fringe Programme.

Which is why I was asked to contribute, although I was not and am not a performer.

One section of Secret Edinburgh was titled Out of Town and contributors basically wrote about their favourite places which are not in the centre of the city.

Below is my contribution in 2013, interspersed with photos taken today.

_____________________________________________________

When I was newly 18, I tried to commit suicide with pills. This was a bad idea, because I had always been shit at Chemistry in school.

I was persuaded to go into a mental home in Essex, because I had tried to kill myself. I did. But I only stayed two days and one night because they kept asking me questions when I just wanted to be left alone.

I went back to my distraught parents’ home, but it was no better there. Not their fault. So I ran away from home.

I hitched to Edinburgh which was and still is my favourite city. Ever since I was an embryo, I had gone there once a year with my parents to spend a few days with my father’s aunt, who lived in Morningside.

When I ran away to Edinburgh, I slept one night in a multi-storey car park at the foot of the castle rock. I spent another sleeping in the stairwell of a block of council flats. It was very cold.

In Morningside, I saw my great aunt on the other side of the street. I did not talk to her.

Later, I walked up the Blackford Hill at twilight to see the view: the city spread out before me, the castle rising up in the distance on the left; Arthur’s Seat rising in the distance on the right. The waters of the Forth were twinkling in the background with Fife beyond them; the lights of the twilight city were starting to twinkle in the foreground.

It was totally peaceful and now, every time I go to Edinburgh for the Fringe, at least once I walk up the Blackford Hill to feel that tranquility amidst the Fringe adrenaline.

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Simon Caine seeks people to literally do elevator pitches for their comedy shows

Simon Caine – Glass half full or half empty?

Comic Simon Caine runs the Ask The Industry Podcast and two Facebook groups for comedy performers – The Comedy Collective and the Edinburgh Fringe Performer Collective.

“You are also doing this lift thing,” I said. “Or this elevator thing, for American readers.”

“It’s a concept,” he replied.

“That sounds like something in a Woody Allen film,” I told him. “A concept that could become a project that could become a…”

This is not Simon but could well be?

“I got a message the other day,” Simon said. “Out of the blue. No context. A message from a girl who saw me in Derby last year. It said: SAW THIS AND THOUGHT OF YOU… It was just an image of Woody Allen with a quote: Life is full of loneliness, misery, suffering and unhappiness. How good is that? She had seen that and thought of me.”

“What’s your Fringe show called this year?” I asked.

Laughter Is The Best Placebo. The strapline for the show is that my life is a constant search for emotional electrical outlets – as in I’m always charging my phone and always trying to project my emotions onto other people. The opening line of the show is that the show is an attempt to work out whether comedy has improved my life or immeasurably ruined it.”

“Which is it?” I asked.

“Definitely the latter.”

“Your fan in Derbyshire is going to love it.”

“It’s on at the Sweet Grassmarket venue, 5.00pm ever day except Wednesdays, when I get rudely awoken by the dustman.”

“I have no idea what that means,” I said, “but we will get to the rubbish later… Your elevator pitch idea is in the same venue.”

The Edinburgh Fringe Apex elevator pitch lift

“Yes. In Apex, the really posh hotel in Grassmarket. They have two lifts and they’re allowing us to commandeer one of them for a couple of hours each day on the 14th and 15th of August.

“A reviewer will get in the lift with a performer, travel 3 or 4 floors and he/she has that amount of time to pitch their show to the reviewer.

“They can do anything they want as long as they don’t touch the reviewer. They can bring in props, do a little skit, sing a song – whatever. Anything they want. Then, at the chosen floor, they get out, a new act gets in and they have the same number of floors to pitch their show.”

“So,” I said, “it literally IS an elevator pitch.”

“Yes, the idea is you get through quite a lot of pitches and the reviewer is left bilious.”

“What time of day is this?”

The performance space for the elevator pitch

“In the afternoon, I think, but we can do it at any point in the day when the reviewers are free. Kate Copstick said she might do it after your Grouchy Club show.”

“So,” I said, “even though a review is not guaranteed, if the pitch is good enough, a reviewer may come and see the show.”

“It’s an opportunity for performers who can’t afford PR,” said Simon.

“Comics at the Fringe can barely afford food,” I said, “which brings us neatly to rubbish. At the end of the Fringe, you are collecting left-over food.”

“Yes,” said Simon, “it’s a food bank collection for the homeless of Edinburgh. If you’re anything like me, you buy food for your flat but, at the very end of the Fringe, there will be some left over. So, instead of throwing it away, you can give it to people who need it much more than you ever did. People you have probably passed several times during the Fringe and not given anything to, like I don’t.

An Edinburgh street during the Fringe – amid the showbiz

“The first two years of doing it, I worked with a charity and wrongly assumed they would be run the same way as the food bank charities in London. It turned out they weren’t.

“With the one I was working with, I found out the people could only go three times a year and had to bring bank statements to prove they were too poor to have enough food.

“And it turned out they were a for-profit food bank, which didn’t make any sense to me.

“Now I have moved over to a thing called The Basics Bank, who only accept food that is not opened, and the Granton Community Orchard Garden. And there’s a third charity, The Homeless Period, who help redistribute hygiene products to women because, obviously, tampons and sanitary towels are not the cheapest things in the world and, if you are broke and living on the street, you don’t necessarily have the money to afford them every month.”

“Shouldn’t,” I suggested, “the period charity get together with the food charity and they can make black puddings?”

“I’m not giving you a reaction to that in case you use it,” replied Simon.

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Scottish comedy – Getting mature?

Is Ben Verth pulling out his hair with his new venture?

Ben Verth lives in London and runs the new Monkey Barrel comedy club in Edinburgh.

“What is your real day job?” I asked him.

“This is,” he replied.

“What?” I asked. “Running a comedy club in Edinburgh while living in London?”

“Yes.”

“You make money from it?”

“Enough. I’ve never been massively rich, but I’ve never been uncomfortable. It used to be just two of us running a fairly profitable gig in a pub on Fridays and Saturdays. Now it’s five of us and our new 7-night-a-week venue. The club is not just me – it’s a collective.”

The Monkey Barrel comedy club opened in Edinburgh two weekends ago. It is a two-level theatre, café and bar space with a 100 capacity main room and a 60 seater basement theatre called The Banana Skin.

Ben told me: “My two big comedy club inspirations are Peter Cook’s The Establishment and The Comedy Store in London. But what John Millar – my business partner – and I most want Monkey Barrel to be is more akin to a National Comedy Theatre of Scotland. Or like the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh – a home for new and exciting writing and performance. We are not just going to be night after night of stand-up.

Monkey Barrel opening night

The opening night of Monkey Barrel

“We want it to be a great home to sketch and improv and comedy theatre too – and, with new media really guiding the development modern entertainment, we want it to be a studio for podcasting and online video content and production. Just a great house for ideas. John and I want to create a great comedy lab and see what happens.”

“Isn’t Scottish comedy,” I asked, trying my best to be provocative, “just second rate London comedy?”

“It’s not shit,” replied Ben. “It’s just young. Scotland doesn’t really have a strong gig infrastructure outside of rowdy weekend shows, so the sort of opportunities to perform are largely harsh and combative and local. It is not really a place for nuance and experimentation – not if you want to start earning money.

“Because I live in London, I can see first hand what the differences are between the two comedy scenes and honestly I think there is as much interesting and exciting comic work going on in corners of Scotland as there is in London. But, in London, you are just much more free to develop on long-established stages. Though things are certainly changing and even over the last few years comedy and comedians’ attitudes in Scotland have begun to mature and acts and like-minded audiences are beginning to find each other.”

“You used to be a performer,” I said. “Have you stopped?”

Ben taking a break from his Sabbatical

Ben taking a break from his Sabbatical

“I think ‘Sabbatical’ might be the right word,” Ben suggested. “I can’t run and market the club and feel like I’ve earned the right to perform there. I started off doing sketch comedy, but there’s no network for that in Scotland, so you find yourself having to become a stand-up. I was not terrible at that, but it didn’t suit me.”

“Why,” I asked, “is the new venue called the Monkey Barrel?”

“We were running comedy nights in a pub in Edinburgh called The Beehive on the Grassmarket and we just generically called ourselves The Beehive Comedy Club. But we knew we were gonna move and thought: What the fuck do we call the new club? How do you even come up with the correct name for something? So we knew ABBA had come about by putting all their initials together and so we put ours into a word randomizer. It was me (Ben Verth) and John Millar – and one of the things the word randomizer came up with was MERLIN’S HERNIA.

“For a brief moment, after a whole day of this bullshit, going absolutely insane trying to think of a name, we thought it would be a great comic name and we could see the figure of old Merlin all bent over with a wizard sign on the door. But then my missus said: That is an awful name! For God’s sake don’t call it that. Why don’t you call it…I dunno… Monkey… Barrel… So we said: Oh, OK.”

“Merlin’s Hernia,” I pointed out, “does not have a V in it.”

“It was right down the list,” said Ben. “It had been a long day.”

“How long,” I asked, “had you been running the Beehive comedy club in Edinburgh?”

“About five years. We had our 5-year birthday last January, but I mis-counted. It should actually have been our 6-year birthday. We were just doing it Fridays and Saturdays and the occasional New Act night as well. But, when there was a bit of economic uncertainty, people stopped coming to the New Act stuff.

Monkey Barrel, Edinburgh

Monkey Barrel is the new comedy contender in Edinburgh

“Now the Monkey Barrel is me and John and our regular host Rick Molland. Chris Griffin is the organisational manager. And a guy called David Bleese, a comedy fan, got on board for the move to the new venue. He used to work with John at the Royal Bank of Scotland.”

“Oh dear,” I said, “There is another club in Edinburgh doing comedy seven days a week. They might be rather vicious if there’s competition? I think there used to be five or six clubs in Edinburgh; then really there was just them… and now you… as competition.”

Ben seems to think the other club is amiable.

“After a rocky first year or so,” he told me, “the old Beehive club started consistently selling out and turning people away, while they (the other club) were also packing out their regular seven nights a week – something which has continued since August when we started our beta-test preview shows in the new venue. So, basically, Edinburgh definitely seems like it has an appetite for weekend comedy. We didn’t go into this with our eyes closed. So I don’t know if the city needs another club, but everything I’ve encountered over the last few years shows it certainly wants one.

“I’ve always been a promoter of some sort and, I think, a decent one – founding and producing The Edinburgh Revue at university, running my own nights at various venues around the city, building up comedy at The Beehive, creating the Scottish Comedy Festival. The real Yes, I can do this! moment came when I met cartoonist and writer John Millar who wanted to do exactly the same thing.  I had the contacts and the know-how; he had the business expertise and the cool head and same ideals and, it must be said, the most remarkable drive I’ve ever encountered,”

“And the new venue is where?” I asked.

“We bought the 17-year lease of a place on Blair Street, just beside the City Cafe.”

“Near the infamous sauna?” I asked.

Google StreetView’s take on Blair Street, Edinburgh

Blair Street seen from the Royal Mile on Google Streetview

“Ah, well, yes…” Ben laughed. “Saunas! We found out very quickly that the landline telephone number we had been given by our phone provider – the one we had started using as our booking line – was originally the phone number of a sauna (not in Blair Street) and it was still listed as their number all over Google. So 50% of the time the phone goes it’s people looking to book tickets.The other 50% it’s seedy-sounding men asking if they can stop by to see Mei Ling (she must be the best one, she’s the most popularly asked for), or can we send her round ‘with some oils’.

“My favourite incident was when a someone rang up asking who was on that night and I said Former Scottish Comedian of the Year Larry Dean… and we’ve got Michael Redmond and… and the voice on the other end of the phone cut me short and asked: Big Jessica not working the night, naw?

“We have been waiting six months to have the number changed. I feel like Mei Ling is the unsung sixth member of staff.  We should maybe start a MeiLing list.”

“Although,” I prompted, “the other organisers of the club are up in Edinburgh, you are doing all this while living in Ealing, London, because of your wife’s job?”

“I am up and down on the train all the time,” Ben said.

“You were born and bred in Edinburgh,” I said. “Do you enjoy living in London?”

Ooh no, missus! - Carry On Constable!

Ooh no, missus! – It’s Charles Hawtry & Kenneth Williams!

“When we first moved to London, we lived in Drayton Grove and, at the end of the road, is the school that was used in Carry On Teacher and the whole surrounding area is where they filmed Carry On Constable. Charles Hawtry’s trousers fell down at the postal depot round the corner.”

“You have a populist taste in movie comedy, then?” I asked.

“I think the greatest four films ever made were the first four Police Academy films. I also love Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who”.

“So why not,” I asked, “go off yourself and make some comedy B-Movie with cheap special effects?”

“Maybe I will,” Ben laughed.

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When I came home yesterday at dusk… Tomorrow & tomorrow & tomorrow…

Durer_NurnbergRuins

I live on the outer edge of London in what is called a Close but is actually a square, with buildings on three sides and, on the other, the back gardens of houses in another street.

When I came home yesterday at dusk, the buildings on the three sides were half demolished, the roofs non-existent, the walls and innards had been broken down to half or more or less than their old height, the bricks and plaster destroyed or exposed and everything was covered with that light white dust of demolition.

When I had walked up the nearby street to my home, there had been red double-decker buses and waste bins and people walking around like it was hundreds of years ago and you were living in and walking through a world you had only known previously from old, faded images. It was dusk and all the 2-dimensional detailing and colours and sounds were there in 3-D reality.

Then I was standing on the Blackford Hill, looking north towards the Firth of Forth and Fife, with the waters stretched out flat and wet before me, the little black island of the Castle Rock sticking out of the water on the left and the larger green island of Arthur’s Seat sticking up out of the water to its right. And, way down, in the waters between them, were the underwater streets and passageways and stone buildings of what used to be Edinburgh. Just dark stone passageways and alleyways in a dark underwater maze now, with light marine growths on the dark stone walls and fish swimming along and between and inside the empty rooms of all the old buildings.

Dreams are strange.

It is very very rare that I remember mine.

Perhaps once a year; maybe twice.

I wish I remembered them more often.

But all the above was not a dream I had last night.

It was yesterday at dusk and I was awake and the images were in my mind.

MyEye_CUT

 

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Prince and the tangled web which gave farter Mr Methane his big US TV break

Prince in 2008 (Photo by Micahmedia)

Prince in 2008 (Photo by Micahmedia)

I stopped writing this blog daily at the end of last year, thinking it would give me more time to do other things.

Since stopping, I have had less time. Who knew? I am now seven un-transcribed blogs behind.

Almost four weeks ago, I had a chat with Mr Methane – the world’s only professional performing farter.

Around midnight last night, he texted me a message. Surprisingly, it did not say: Where the fuck is the blog your were going to write? Instead, it read:

“Quite stunned and saddened to hear about the death of Prince – an artist whose global success indirectly led to me appearing on the Howard Stern Show in the US.

“I made my first ever visit to the Howard Stern Show thanks to the hard work of Lenny Shabes. He was President of WATV. Lenny was a big fan of Howard and became aware of my alimentary talents while in London visiting his friend, artist manager and producer Steve Fargnoli – a man responsible for the careers of Prince and also possibly my biggest fan Sinéad O’Connor.

Mr Methane Let’s Rip in his VHS release

Mr Methane Let’s Rip opened him up to the US audience

“Steve Fargnoli introduced Lenny to my manager Barrie Barlow and, on returning to the States, Lenny sent a copy of my video Mr Methane Lets Rip to Howard’s producer Gary Dell’Abate AKA ‘Baba Booey’.

“Lenny followed it up with an astonishing 90-odd phone calls until Gary and Howard eventually caved in and watched the tape.

“Gary and Howard liked what they saw and invited me to the show where I performed a special rendition of Happy Birthday.

“The appearance was judged to be a success and was shown on Howard’s E TV & CBS television shows with Howard Stern proclaiming himself to be a huge Mr. Methane fan.

“This may have never happened if Prince’s Purple Rain hadn’t established Steve Fargnoli as a giant of music business management with an office in London.

“The law of unintended consequences strikes again.”

There is a video on YouTube of Mr Methane’s first appearance on the Howard Stern Show.

Last year, I wrote a blog which pointed out Mr Methane is related to the Queen of England and Thurston de Basset, Grand Falconer to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings.

It now turns out that, as well as being related to Queen Elizabeth II, he is also related to Lord Byron. Genuinely.

When Mr Methane and I met again a month ago in St Pancras station, he was NOT going to the Paaspop festival in Holland. He had been booked to perform in a cabaret tent at the festival but then, for unknown reasons, the cabaret tent and all its acts were cancelled. They paid him half his fee and all his travel costs. So, instead of going to Holland, he took a train down from Macclesfield to London to celebrate what he called his “birthday we won’t mention.”

Mr Methane’s sister is still researching the family tree.

“Our grandma was Joan Byron,” Mr Methane told me, “and she married into the Bassets. She came from the Byron dynasty which used to hang out originally at Clayton Hall, where Manchester City’s football ground is now.

“We’ve got another grandma – Cecilia de Warren and her dad was the Earl of Surrey. She’s a connection that takes us back to the Plantagenets.”

“So,” I said, “your sister’s doing all this family research.”

Mr Methane wearing a Howard Stern badge

Mr Methane wearing a Howard Stern badge

“Yes. She’s got a BA and an MA and she took the BA in Art History. Before she came out with her Art History degree, I used to think Salford Van Hire was a Dutch painter.”

“Wey-hey!” I said.

“I’ve learned a lot off other people,” Mr Methane continued. “Barrie, my business manager is in the music industry and I knew very little about that too. I used to think Dexy’s Midnight Runners was a laxative.”

“Wey-hey!” I said. “So what have you got coming up in your farting career?”

“I’ve got a very very secret thing that I can’t talk about in Finland.”

“And sadly,” I said, “you can’t do the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards show in Edinburgh in August because…”

“…I’m at the Dorset Steam Fair,” agreed Mr Methane. “Blowing my own trumpet. Then I’ve got to start writing the Mr Methane book. It’s going to be a long time in the process, but this year’s going to be the start of that. I think I need to leave a legacy. I don’t know whether to call it Behind The Behind or Life at The Bottom.”

“This will be your auto-blow-ography?” I asked.

“Yes, there will be loads of double-entendres in it,” agreed Mr Methane. “There’s something else I’m doing… I should write a list, shouldn’t I? But, being a performer, I don’t write lists, I just have things rattling around in me that come out.”

At this point, our conversation was interrupted by a text on his phone from a friend. It read:

A Belgian Shepherd dog not on the beach (Photo by Ulrik Wallström)

A Belgian Shepherd dog shot not on the beach (Photograph by Ulrik Wallström)

Can’t get on the beach for sheep.

“That’s right,” Mr Methane told me. “A friend has got a couple of big Belgian Shepherd Dogs and the sheep graze on the salt marsh, so you can’t have big Belgian Shepherd dogs chasing the sheep, can you?”

“No,” I agreed, “you can’t.”

I had no idea what we were talking about.

It often happens.

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One woman’s epiphany in Edinburgh

Edinburgh from Blackford Hill

Yesterday’s blog had a reaction from Sue Blackwell in Edinburgh, who occasionally crops up in these blogs.

I have no idea idea why she had this reaction. Perhaps it was because I mentioned my ‘inherent nihilism’.

For whatever reason, this is what she wrote:


Your blog triggered a memory of something that occurred many years ago now, when I was in my late thirties. I was drying some cutlery at the time.

Possibly I was over-tired, overstressed, I don’t have any explanation for it.

It was a state of mind that is sometimes reached – so I understand – by taking mind-altering drugs, which I had not done.

I don’t have a belief in God or any sort of higher being although, in my earlier years, there was an urge to question the reason for our existence – which took me down many avenues of exploration.

Not so today nor for many, many years now.

But in that moment or moments – I have no recall of how long it lasted – it was as though thought had stopped and this other state of consciousness came into play. I was aware of overwhelming joy, love and an awareness of order in our existence.

This order was incredibly beautiful, and it was as though a curtain had been drawn back and I understood all things. It was an Aaah! Now I understand! moment.

I have no recall of what I understood or experienced, because thought was not there.

As thought returned, this other state receded until it was no more.

I didn’t tell anyone about what had occurred because, certainly for the next three weeks or so, I found it too overwhelming to speak about.

What a lot of old bollocks this sounds now, but there is no denying that it happened.

I was not depressed at the time and have no explanation for it.

Words could not capture what had happened, so there was no way of communicating it with anyone else.

When I eventually did talk about it with one or two people it moved me to tears each time.

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Edinburgh toilet humour, some bearded French Canadians, Death on the Fringe

This morning, I received an e-mail about the Edinburgh Fringe from comic Paul Ricketts. It was something he had actually posted on a Facebook page. It read:

Ceci n'est pas une affiche Édimbourg

Ceci n’est pas une affiche Édimbourg maybe

Four years ago I sent out a press release for a hoax show to be performed in the gents portacabin toilet cubicle in the Pleasance Courtyard.

It was supposed to be taking the piss out of the expense of hiring rooms at the ‘Big Four’ Fringe venues – something which I can’t afford to do.

Strangely, enough people (including US Comic Tom Green) took this show seriously and I went ahead and did a performance on August 20th, 5.30pm in cubicle 3. I charged a penny for all those who want to watch – I made 11p! 

I am considering bringing the show back this year (from Aug 6 to 17) this time as a mixed bill show on dates and big 4 venues toilets to be announced. Everyone is welcome.

Later in the day, I got another e-mail from Paul. this one read:

So far, three comics are willing to do spots/slots in Big 4 venue toilet. I am now SERIOUSLY considering bringing the show back! 

Barbu

The men who conquered the world with timber

At almost exactly the same time, I got sent a picture of three semi-naked men in black trunks and one suspended in a red bag. The accompanying e-mail read:

After having conquered the world with timber, Cirque Alfonse will now hit Edinburgh Fringe with its latest show Barbu (Bearded) Electro-Trad Cabaret

It is two weeks before the Fringe starts, but the quirkiness has started already.

It is probably unfair or in bad taste to use the word ‘quirky’ for my Skype conversation with Robert James Peacock up in Edinburgh this morning. He is the Managing Editor of the TV Bomb website.

“Death,” I started. “Tell me about death.”

“I am,” said Robert James Peacock, “ Director of Death on the Fringe, My main job is working freelance doing arts marketing but last year, as a voluntary thing, I started working for a charity called the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care and one of their campaigns is a thing called Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief.

“It’s an alliance of various end-of-life associations – a lot of hospices are involved, a lot of NHS Trusts – and it’s run by the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care. They’re promoting another Scotland-wide festival in November called To Absent Friends.

Robert James Peacock

Robert James Peacock talked from Edinburgh this morning

“The basis is that we, as Brits, are not very good at talking about death and dealing with death. Everyone has to go through it sometime – everyone loses someone close to them – and, if you don’t talk about it, you don’t necessarily confront all the issues involved with it.

“You don’t know if gran wants to be buried or cremated; people don’t leave wills; people don’t know how to support people who have been through a bereavement.

Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief is a year-round campaign doing all sorts of activities and they came to me last year and said: We would like to do something during the Edinburgh Fringe. So we came up with this idea: Death on the Fringe. Basically, all the shows on the Fringe to do with death, bereavement, grief – put them all together in one programme to raise the profile of the campaign. It also gets more people to see some shows and kick-starts a debate about death and bereavement.

“It went well last year and, this year, we’ve had a bit more time to get all the existing shows together, so we have also programmed our own series of lectures – academics and thinkers – about death.

Richard Smith brother of comedian Arthur Smith

Ex-BMJ’s Richard Smith, brother of comedian Arthur Smith

“We have the former British Medical Journal editor Richard Smith, who’s the brother of comedian Arthur Smith, doing a lecture on 31st August about the ‘up side’ of death – based on the idea that, if no-one ever died, there would not be space for all the people who are born.

“And we have Professor Scott Murray, the Chair of Primary Palliative Care at the University of Edinburgh, comparing death in Africa with death in Scotland and how we deal with it differently.”

“Is,” I asked, “death in Scotland any different to death in England? Is there a psychological difference?”

“Well,” replied Robert, “the Celtic tradition of death is very different to the English tradition, if you think about things like Irish wakes which are very different to the Anglo Saxon treatment of death.”

“I suppose,” I said, “Scots just remain dour.”

“All the performers have been very supportive of death on the Fringe,” said Robert. “Lynn Ruth Miller’s involved.”

Lynn Ruth Miller wants to rub some matzo balls

The inimitable Lynn Ruth: nearer to God, than thee

“Well,” I said, “I guess she’s closer to death than most.”

“Last year,” Robert reminded me, “her show was called Not Dead Yet. This year, it’s called Get a Grip. We don’t want things that are necessarily serious things about death; we want things that are contemplative, reflective, which make people think about how they want to live their lives.

“It’s not just comedy. We have a couple of plays at the Traverse Theatre. One is called A Gambler’s Guide to Dying about someone who placed all his savings on a bet that he would live to see the year 2000. The other one is called Am I Dead Yet? which is being done in conjunction with the emergency services and is about how death is no longer a moment: it’s a process.

“Then there’s a comedy play – The Ascension of Mrs Leech – in which a Mrs Brown-esque figure dies and ends up causing trouble in heaven.”

“You’re not,” I asked, “associated with the Dr Death or Mel Moon shows?’

Am I Dead Yet?

Am I Dead Yet? Live as part of Death on the Fringe

“Well,” explained Robert, “because the charity is very involved in things like hospices, Dr Death was a difficult one for us, because putting that in the programme would be almost like endorsing assisted suicide. It is a topic to debate, but we didn’t want to go so far as looking like we were endorsing it. We don’t want people to assume assisted suicide is the way to go if they haven’t explored other issues.

“With Mel Moon, although she’s now separated from Dr Death, it’s a bit too late to start adding her to the programme.”

“How,” I asked, “are you going to develop Death on the Fringe next year?”

“Well, this year, we took the step of programming some of our own stuff, like the lectures and a couple of cabaret evenings. Next year we might actually start looking at finding a space where we can host our own events throughout the Fringe.”

An unexplained giant sloth

Unexplained giant sloth attacked (Photograph by Anna Smith)

“It’s very interesting,” I said, “because Edinburgh does like meaty, serious subjects.”

I talked to Robert via Skype this morning.

When I got home tonight, there was an unexplained photograph from this blog’s Canadian correspondent Anna Smith.

It appeared to show a giant sloth being attacked by a giant cat while a Chinese gentleman looked on.

I was also sent a YouTube link to a video of Cirque Alfonse, the bearded French Canadians. They seem very energetic.

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