Tag Archives: education

Other people’s lives: the schooldays of UK music legend Simon Napier-Bell

This blog is occasionally called a “comedy blog”, but it is really about interesting people doing interesting, often creative, things – and about other people’s often far-from-normal lives. 

Of course, ‘normal’ is in the eye and ear of the beholder.

Simon Napier-Bell has been called (by Billboard magazine) a “multi-hyphenate British entrepreneur”, (by many) “a bon viveur”, (by himself on his own websitean “author, songwriter, film-maker and public speaker” and (by the Guardian and others) “one of Britain’s most successful ever pop managers”.

The acts he managed included Marc Bolan and T Rex, Boney M, George Michael and Wham!, Sinéad O’Connor, Ultravox… and the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

He currently lives in Thailand.

Today is his 79th birthday.

These are his thoughts:


Because it’s my birthday today I was searching though the past to find a good birthday to write about.

An intimidating evening of conversation with Harold Pinter, Clive Donner and Donald Pleasance at the Connaught in the 1960s.

An extravagantly debauched dinner with Spanish pop stars Camilo Sesto and Antonio Morales at the Masquerade Club in Earls Court in the 70s.

A Beluga binge at Petrossian in New York with Vicki Wickham in the 80s.

Not to mention all the birthday dinners with special friends of the moment, or the ones that ended up with too much boozing in night clubs, often with much shagging afterwards.

One birthday that jumped to mind was rather different. It was my first year at public school and the start of the summer term. I was still in what was called a ‘junior’ house, with a cantankerous, malevolent housemaster – Mr Hoare.

Bryanston School in Dorset (Photograph by Ben Brooksbank)

Two terms earlier I’d arrived from grammar school with the wrong accent and the wrong attitude. I’d quickly modified my accent but hadn’t done so well with my attitude. 

Everything I did or said seemed to rile Mr Hoare terribly; he hated me. And inevitably I hated him back.

On my 14th birthday, my best friend took me to the tuck shop and asked me what I’d like. Not wanting to overtax his good nature, I modestly chose a can of condensed milk.

That evening, with the can only half finished, I discreetly smuggled it into the dormitory and after lights out handed it round. Then the lights flashed on again.

It was Mr Hoare. I was hauled out of the room, taken downstairs and made to sleep on a camp bed in the cupboard where the cleaning utensils were kept – a couple of Hoovers, buckets, mops, that sort of thing.

That wasn’t the only present he gave me for my 14th birthday. The second one was to make me sleep there for the rest of the term. And instead of being able to use the communal bathroom and toilets I had to use an outside shack in the garden. It wasn’t how I would have chosen to live for the next ten weeks but I’ve always been one to cope with situations, so I just got on with it.

On the last day of term, as the coach was arriving to take us all to the railway station, Mr Hoare presented me with my two-month old, half-finished can of condensed milk. 

Disdainfully, I threw it into the waste bin. Mr Hoare was splenetic, “Napier-Bell. Aren’t we meant to say thank-you when someone gives us something?”

In my purest, sweetest public school tones, I said’ “Thank-you, sir.” But as I turned to get on the coach I was shocked to hear my mouth add something totally unintended. “And I hope you die, sir.”

It was certainly what I felt but definitely not something I’d intended to say. I spent the holidays in dread of the inevitable letter to my parents telling them I’d been expelled, but it never came.

And when I went back to school the next term I was in a new house with a new housemaster and no mention was made of what I’d said. A little later however, at morning assembly, the headmaster informed the school that Mr Hoare had died.

I can’t pretend I wasn’t pleased. But it was still quite a shock. And I have to admit from then on I’ve been rather careful about wishing bad on anybody. So for my birthday today, good wishes to everybody. May you all have long, happy, lovely lives.

(But never take a child’s condensed milk away.)

 

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Filed under Education, Music, UK

How British Government finance works – by the stand-up comic who worked for Education Secretary Michael Gove

Gareth Morinan in Soho yesterday, shocked by his memories

Gareth Morinan in Soho yesterday, shocked by his memories

Stand-up comics tend to have odd and interesting backgrounds.

Gareth Morinan’s university degree was in Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics.

Yesterday at Bar Italia in Soho, he told me: “I started in the Civil Service in late 2008 because I wanted to see how government works and I was there until around mid-2011.

“Most of the time I was there, I was in the Education Department although, for the first six months, I worked in this dodgy department called The Export Credits Guarantee Department, which is the only department other than the HM Revenue & Customs that makes money. It’s basically like a government-run insurance firm.

If some big British company wants to export, they’ll always have an insurance deal. But, if they’re exporting to some dodgy country – if they want to export fighter jets to some dodgy country – no private insurance company is going to insure that: it’s too risky. So the government has this entire department purely set up for supporting dodgy deals. I was really curious, so went to work there for six months and then left. I was an analyst there. As an analyst, people take your word as Gospel.”

“That’s because your art is a science.” I suggested.

“Yes,” Gareth laughed, “even though, when you look at the spreadsheets, it’s very dodgy. I had situations where I would e-mail someone a figure saying This is a very rough figure. This is the best figure I can get. And it got sent round the department and would eventually come back to me as fact and I’d say: I know that’s not fact. I came up with that figure. Don’t put that out on a press release. But they did. This happened a lot in the Export Credits Guarantee Department.”

“That was under the Labour Party?” I asked.

“Yeah. You had these figures – especially around the time of the financial crisis, where some analyst somewhere in some bank had come out with some figure he’d plucked out of the air on the back of an envelope and, as soon as it became public, that figure became ‘fact’ and it could not be changed and everyone had to work from those figures.

“All politicians really want is a number: Give me a number. Don’t tell me anything else. The less I know about how dodgy this number is, the better it is – It’s that plausible deniability thing.

“I started in the Education Department about a year before the General Election so, when I started, Ed Balls was the Minister and then, about a year later, it was all-change because the Coalition came in and what we were doing changed somewhat.”

“Changed?” I asked.

“Well,” Gareth told me, “the key thing Michael Gove did when he came in was – on the first day – a big picture of the Queen was put up in Reception. And there were some formality differences.

Policies changed with Michael Gove

Policies changed with the arrival of journalist Michael Gove

“The most interesting thing was that the Permanent Secretary told us – these are not his exact words, but he basically told us – This new government – specifically Michael Gove – doesn’t care so much about the details or the facts. He cares more about ‘the narrative’. 

“When we were doing White Papers, whereas before it was very much We’ve got to have these details; this is the headline figure, Michael Gove, because he’s a journalist, just wanted the story to read well.

“He was a local journalist, then a journalist for The Times, then a TV commentator… then suddenly he’s in charge of national education policy, which makes a change from cracking jokes on A Stab in The Dark with David Baddiel.”

There is a clip on YouTube of him presenting 1993 TV satire show A Stab in The Dark:

“Most of the financial projections in Education,” Gareth told me, “are based on how many kids there are going to be and those calculations are based round the Office for National Statistics’ population projections. But Michael Gove was quite keen for a while on trying to replace them with projections done by somebody he knows at Tesco.

“At Tesco, they have all this Clubcard data and they have projections which help them decide where to open up a new store. And, for quite a while, he was arguing we should start incorporating those – or replace the official national projections with ones done by Tesco. It didn’t go down well in the department.

“I actually had to lie for Michael Gove once.

“During the big Comprehensive Spending Review where (Chancellor of the Exchequer) George Osborne works out how much money he’s going to give to all the departments, I was basically the guy working out the headline figures of how many billions we needed. I would hand those numbers to someone who then had a meeting with Michael Gove – There was always a buffer zone between me and Michael Gove. Maybe I was too scruffy.

“Our department did quite well in the budget review – basically they decided to give us extra money at the cost of other departments. So we had a nice little champagne reception to thank everyone and the look Michael Gove gave me when I stood there listening to his speech was like How did this one get in? I was just wearing a shirt and cardigan and looking very scruffy with uncombed hair. He was like Oh God! What is going on there?

“But, basically, in the spending review, we were negotiating and there was a strategy department. I provided numbers and we would go into meetings with all these senior Treasury people and I was the person having to justify all the numbers.

“Over the course of several months, while this was happening, the Office for National Statistics came out with a new projection of pupil numbers, which underpinned all our financial projections… and their projections were basically lower. So, overnight, our projection of how much money we needed went down by about half a billion pounds.

Michael Gove at Westminster in 2008

Michael Gove looking contemplative in Westminster in 2008

“Michael Gove’s opinion was that this had not happened and that the projections we believed were the ones that were higher. That was the official line.

“We were about to go into this meeting and I’m the one who has to explain the actual numbers to all these senior Treasury people who were probably better negotiators than the people in our department and better analysts than me. And I was told before I went into the meeting: Well, just come up with something.

“So I was pinned down in this meeting by the Treasury people: What’s the difference in these numbers? Which ones are the correct ones? The higher ones? Why? I basically just stuttered for a while and gave a very unconvincing performance.”

“Did you get away with it?” I asked.

“No,” said Gareth. “After that meeting, I went to my boss, who was an analyst, and he was like Well, this is outrageous. We shouldn’t be lying. And my boss spoke to the other person’s boss and eventually they decided that we were going to go with the lower numbers… But here’s an interesting example of how analysis works in the government.

“The thing you learn when you work in any government department is how little information we actually have. There are entire swathes of the education budget that no-one really knows the cost of.

“The biggest mystery black hole is kids who have special needs. There are more of these kids every year – especially ones with serious medical problems who require like £100,000 a year – because, as health technology improves, more kids get saved and live longer.

“There’s no way of predicting how many of these kids there’s going to be and medical costs keep going up, so there was this line in the budget which was The 1% Assumption. It was a long-standing assumption: We don’t know how much it’s going to be, so we just assume it’s going to rise by 1% every year.

“My brainwave was to ask: Well… Could we make this The 2% Assumption? That was thought to be a genius idea. We put it into the calculations and suddenly the gap was closed and we were back to the higher figure we had originally wanted.

“That was probably the one thing I did which made the biggest actual difference when I worked for the government.”

* * * * *

Gareth Morinan has a YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/gmorinan, to which he will be adding over the next couple of months.

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Filed under Education, Finance, Humor, Humour, Politics

Sick British comedy critic Kate Copstick living in Kenya with a tiny black pussy

(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)

Mama Biashara’s Kate Copstick

La Copstick squatting in Kenya

British comedy critic Kate Copstick set up the Mama Biashara charity in Kenya to fund health care projects and help poor people (especially women) set up their own small businesses. What is perhaps not generally known is that Copstick suffers from lupus, a disease in which the immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissues.

Copstick is currently in Kenya. These are extracts from her diary over the last week. She lives in the slums of Nairobi with a small kitten.

TUESDAY 16th APRIL

To be honest, I am not feeling that well. NO, this is not a hangover. Just lupusy crap.

I stay in bed all morning, asleep. I am not missing much as the torrential rain that generally falls through the night is falling through the day now. The whole place is a mudbath. This is monster rain and it precludes movement in slum areas as roads become impassable and impossible. People are patching up their homes, rescuing animals and children from the flood and generally wondering where a friendly neighbourhood Noah is when you need one.

I awake at around 3pm to the sound of lashing rain and a phone that says 22 missed calls. I agree to meet up with Doris (a) to prove I really am still alive and (b) to buy a dongle for the Mama Biashara notepad and a dedicated Mama Biashara telephone line. Doris has a penchant for second-hand smartphones and they are a disaster. There are species of mayfly with a longer life expectancy than the battery on a second-hand Samsung smartphone. We will be buying the BASIC Nokia (like wot I have… well the current version. Mine is seven years old and still going strong).

We also need to send the boys from the workshop (the ones who want to sell duck meat) their start-up money. And meet and talk to the firewood group who need a chainsaw. And I have to send some money to Sammi Njoroge, a great guy who is looking after four orphans (with Mama Biashara’s help).

WEDNESDAY 17th APRIL

Some of the Kenyan children helped by Mama Biashara

Some of the local Kenyan children helped by Mama Biashara

I have agreed to meet Felista to discuss DECIP (the Dagoreti Early Child Intervention Program, an AIDs NGO), why it looked like such a disaster area and why it is unlikely that she could make a go of working with Childfund. Also to talk about why it is now ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for her to find other people to help fund DECIP.

The talk is pointed. Not to the point of heated. Warm maybe. Simmering.

I ask why DECIP looked like such a disaster area. It turns out that the work demanded by the City Council (and funded by Mama Biashara) was only half done. Everything was stopped because of the rain. The two flooded classrooms were being prepared for new flooring when the flooding came and now they have to wait for the flooding to abate before going ahead with the work.

At the end of that, DECIP should be back on track. On track to what, I am never sure, but on track.

We put together a budget to help with funding the school (100 destitute, orphan pupils, no visible means of support). The money being used to pay the teachers a 50% salary each month has been diverted from buying food and food is being bought by the money from CWAC (the Children With AIDs Charity) and collected in donations from visitors.

The rain is, once more, torrential.

THURSDAY APRIL 18th

I am awoken by the kitten licking my eyelids. As its tiny tongue makes its way across my temples to my ears, the sensation is worryingly sensual. I pick the tiny black pussy off my face and get up. Good grief ! Is this how the slide into utter depravity begins? Alone in a shipping container, with no form of entertainment other than picking one’s scabs and scratching one’s lumps, and a small black furry thing presents itself…

What would Mother Theresa do? I ask myself.

Undoubtedly beat the kitten until it converted to Catholicism.

Undoubtedly… So THAT is no help…

Luckily I have loads to do.

My prototype raincatcher in the Rift Valley outside Maai Mahiu is a huge success. On the first night (Monday), although there was only a light rain, it filled the 250 litre drum. On the Tuesday, with heavier rain, people were lining up with their tanks and getting them filled by Mama Biashara’s Raincatcher. And so we are on to roll the model out as far as we can on this trip.

It is pouring down again.

FRIDAY 19th APRIL

Group of former prostitutes who now make shag pile carpets

Group of former prostitutes who now make shag pile carpets

Mama Biashara is really operating at a different level now, largely thanks to Doris and her endless, wonderful work in the furthest reaches of Nairobi’s slums (and beyond). Her ability is to mentor and support and suggest and get big groups of people to band together with a truly viable business, showing not just proper product knowledge but research and a swathe of orders set up in advance. These businesses have a serious success rate. The members keep each other on their toes. It really is a huge step in the right direction. And this is a woman struggling to survive herself – a single mum with 3-year-old triplets. She is a glorious human being.

Some time ago, we did a workshop for a community of first and second generation Zimbabwean refugees. We did a business workshop but also gave cod liver oil, multi-vitamins, ibugel etc.

Now some of the women have come to Doris with a problem. Their children are being beaten at school because their homework is not being done properly. This is because the mothers cannot help their children with homework (as they are meant to do) because the mothers themselves are wholly illiterate and innumerate – because educating women is against the culture of the community which has settled here.

In a massive breakthrough, Doris has persuaded the Elders to allow some university students to come and help the kids with homework.

But the women want to learn. They feel really bad that their kids are being beaten.

But the Elders are dead against the women learning.

So we plan Mama Biashara’s Secret School. I know there are issues about interfering with other people’s cultures, but this has been driven by the women and we are hardly going to be teaching them the Complete Works of Andrea Dworkin – just ABC and 123 and how to write their names.

We (I say we, I mean Doris) are going to make a last-ditch attempt to persuade the Elders to allow the school. Fingers crossed.

SATURDAY 20th APRIL

It has to be admitted that I awoke feeling less than chipper. Plan A had been to get up early and get to the bank before it closes at 12 noon. This doesn’t happen. I hit the ATM for some of the necessary readies I need to collect stuff at the market. Lucia’s bags are getting more beautiful every time I see her. I get armloads of stuff and get on the bus back to Corner. We have an irritating onboard preacher who shouts a lot about covering us all in the Blood of Christ and insists we all pray.

Now it is pouring rain. I cannot sell rain-soaked raffia bags and so I negotiate a decent cab fare and get a ride home.

I am feeling dodgier by the minute and now appear to be pissing out individual drops of sulphuric acid. This has happened before in Kenya and I go to the lovely ladies at the (fairly) nearby chemist and get a pack of a combination of antibiotic, anti-everything bombs that should nuke whatever it is and, if it is more kidney grit, make sure there is no following infection. I drink mugs of Bicarbonate of Soda solution which helps a bit. I don’t sleep well.

SUNDAY 21st APRIL

I spend twenty minutes in the loo in quite some pain. I come out and almost immediately go back in again. I get a taxi home. It is not a good day.

I appear to be weeing tiny blood clots. And now have hilariously explosive (and LOUD) diarrhoea. Even the cats go outside.

I take another dose of the combination bombs and drink loads of water.

MONDAY 22nd APRIL

I am much better than expected. I feel a little like I have been through the boil wash and the spin dry but much better. And this is a Big Day !!!

The Mama Biashara Patent Raincatcher Water Harvesting Project is being rolled out across a (very small) part of the Great Rift Valley. The tanks are there, the taps are fitted into the tanks. It is all going so well. Until we discover that the hardware shop owner who had agreed to take the tanks out to the Maasai meeting place in his big lorry for just the cost of the fuel, has buggered off to Limuru with said big lorry. I get a bit stompy and moody when his wife (an irritating woman in a bad wig) just shrugs and sniggers when I ask what we should do.

TUESDAY 23rd APRIL

Kate Copstick cares in Kenya

Kate Copstick pictured up against the wall, Kenya

We hear that the Zimbabwean Elders have said that Mama Biashara CAN run a school for members of the community, but only for the men.

Meanwhile Doris has a handful of university students on break teaching the kids and helping them with their homework in the hope that they won’t get beaten senseless at school for doing it badly.

The Elders are allowing the children to learn at school and with the students (a BIG leap of faith for them) but they won’t allow the women to learn even ABC and 123 so that they can help their own children.

Doris thinks that The Elders believe we are going to teach the women about contraception, independence and other Western Ways. They have also heard that I don’t believe in God and so this makes me The Tool Of The Devil. Such Tool, of course, is not to be allowed near their women.

We head off to do a medical workshop.

Unfortunately, by the time we get there, I have come over a bit funny (it’s the way I tell them) and am sweaty and sleeping on the back seat. It seems the nasties are back – even after being zapped with a double dose of what is basically Agent Orange for the human insides.

Doris insists I go home to bed. I am a bit, to be frank, worried myself. We stop by the chemist.

I ask for industrial-strength antibiotics. The lovely girl there, usually so helpful, offers me many things, most of them with names starting with ‘Gyno-‘.

“No no no,” I say.

Finally, she offers me clotrimazole.

“I do not have thrush!” I say very loudly and much to the amusement of the two gentlemen in the queue behind me. They smirk knowingly. I can see they think this obviously slutty mzungu is in denial.

“Ciprofloxacin?” I beg.

“Ah !” she disappears and comes back with a box. “I feared to offer you antibiotics,” she says. “I know you hate antibiotics.”

Ah… Hoist by my own tirades against the universal prescription of Amoxil and Piriton for everything short of sudden death.

I swallow two antibiotic bombs and take the rest of the course with me.

“It is a good medicine,” says an old bloke appearing from upstairs. “Generic. From India. Never use the Kenyan medicines. They are useless.” And he is a doctor, it transpires.

At £1.50 for a course, I am willing to let India do what it can for me.

And it does well. By the time the little kitten who stays with me wakes up, has what is undoubtedly a feline epileptic fit, pukes into my open hand and shits all over the floor, I am feeling quite well enough to clean everything up. My temperature is normal (I forgot what a difference that makes). The pains are going … All good.

** Mama Biashara is financed solely by donations; Kate Copstick receives no salary and takes no money to cover any of her personal expenses nor her travel costs

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A girls’ boarding school, unwanted sex with rabbits and comic John Moloney

Rabbits and their habits taught to young girls

Rabbits and their habits were taught to innocent young girls

After last night, I wish I had gone to a girls’ boarding school in my teenage years.

Last night, I sat between two women who did go to boarding school together and who were reminiscing about their not-so-good old days.

I will call them Mary and Margaret.

They had found a Facebook group thread for their old school:

“Does anyone remember The Rabbit Lady?” said one online comment. “Once a year, the whole school had to sit in the hall for ‘sex education’ while she drew diagrams and prattled on about the reproductive cycle of rabbits.”

“She was The Bunny Woman,” someone else had posted. “So-called because the first ‘sex’ lesson she delivered was all about Mummy Bunny and Daddy Bunny and how they managed to produce all those little bunnies… That’s all she talked about. I don’t remember any follow-up lessons, just the rabbit one. It left us all a bit mystified.”

“Do you remember anything about rabbits?” I asked Mary.

“No, that was before my time,” she replied, “but we had our equivalent of The Rabbit Lady.”

“Did we?” asked Margaret.

“You don’t remember?” asked Mary. “Once a year in the gym? Our whole class – well, two years together – we had to bring our chairs in a semi-circle and sit there and we thought this woman was obviously going to tell us the details of sticking it in and ovaries and stuff like that – maybe making it clearer to us, though we’d guessed some bits – and Catherine asked What are periods? and that was it. The whole lesson was spent talking about what periods were. We weren’t interested. We wanted to know about bits & pieces and hot dogs & sausage rolls.”

“Is there a Facebook page for your school?” Margaret asked me.

There was.

“You have a lot of notable former pupils,” Margaret said, scrolling down the list. “Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Button, Director of RAF Education…”

“Ah!” I lied. “Old ‘Butters’,” I knew him well.” In fact, he was born in 1916, before my parents were even born. But I had known about (though never knew):

Raymond Baxter (1922-2006), TV personality (presenter of now sadly forgotten science series Tomorrow’s World)

and

Sir Trevor Brooking (b.1948), Footballer

and, more interestingly

Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), Chemist, who had studied at the girls’ school and transferred to the boys’ school at the age of 16 so she could study science.

Then, another surprise to me:

Boyd Hilton (b.1967) TV Editor, Heat Magazine

We scrolled further down the list.

“Good heavens!” I said.

John Moloney (b.1965), Comedian and Writer

“I didn’t know he went to my school,” I said. “I worked with his wife Anna on a Jack Dee TV series. She was wonderful. Phenomenally efficient. John Moloney’s very good. He started out billing himself as an Angry Young Accordionist. I wonder if he learnt it at school.”

“The accordion?” asked Mary.

“Being angry,” I said.

I was not on the list of notable former pupils.

It is good to see that standards have been maintained.

But I would like to know more about Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), Chemist, who had studied at the girls’ school and transferred to the boys’ school at the age of 16 so she could study science.

If I had known that and if she did that, perhaps I missed my chance and I really could have gone to a girls’ boarding school and learned about sex with rabbits.

Life is full of missed opportunities.

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The vulnerability of anarchic comedians Malcolm Hardee and Martin Soan

The young-ish Malcolm Hardee (left) and Martin Soan (right) (Photograph courtesy of Steve Taylor from up north)

Last night, a preview of the Greatest Show on LegsEdinburgh Fringe show at London’s Comedy Cafe was cancelled due to a gas leak.

So, instead, leading Leg Martin Soan talked to me about the oft-called ‘godfather of British alternative comedy’ Malcolm Hardee, about whom I have oft blogged here.

Martin and Malcolm met, in their late teens, shortly after Martin had started The Greatest Show On Legs as an adult Punch & Judy show. The Legs were perhaps most famous for their Naked Balloon Dance on Chris Tarrant’s OTT TV show.

“There was other stuff in Malcolm,” Martin said, “but, because he was a bit lazy and always took the easy options… We did talk about some fairly sophisticated stuff for the Greatest Show On Legs to do and, if only we’d pursued that and had had a university-educated ethic about work, we would have come up with some lovely scenarios, me and Malcolm, as a working partnership, except they would have been upper class rather than middle class or working class.

“With a university education, we’d have known all about writing and we’d have motivated people to do it and we would have been ahead of our fucking time.

“What you don’t write about about Malcolm, what you don’t write about about me is that we were vulnerable. We didn’t possess – I don’t possess – natural self-confidence. Malcolm didn’t. He really didn’t. That was our affinity with each other. We bullshitted; we both tried to get away with it; we were out for a good time. But, basically, we were both vulnerable. And that was very true about Malcolm.

“Though,” I said, “Malcolm exuded confidence to other people.”

“Yeah, he did,” agreed Martin.

“But…?” I asked.

“But…” Martin said and then stopped, lost in thought.

“He was shy, wasn’t he?” I said.

“He was shy, yes,” said Martin. “Not able to express his emotions.”

“Yet everyone who didn’t know him thinks he was this outrageous, extrovert character,” I said.

“As a human being, he had his faults and that’s why we loved him,” said Martin. “He was like, in some sort of way, a Mr Punch character. All the things that were wrong about a person were all the things you loved about them at the same time. That was Malcolm.

“There was an affinity between me and him because we met when we were young and we felt we weren’t worthy. We had this hang-up but, at the same time, it was Wey-heh! Yeah! Go for it!

“And you told me the vulnerability was about education,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Martin. “There was this Wey-heh! Yeah! Go for it! But you couldn’t take that vulnerability out of me and Malcolm. There was a tragic inability for these young, sometimes charismatic working class lads to… we couldn’t quite fucking crack it.

“In a sense, we all did really well, but still there’s that feeling in the back of the mind: We’re no good.”

“But Malcolm wasn’t really working class,” I said. “And I don’t think he had a thing about education, did he? He went to Colfe’s School and he could have done better but,” I laughed, “the way he told it his father buggered-up his chances in the interview. I don’t think Malcolm had a thing about lack of education, did he?”

“He did,” Martin corrected me, “Malcolm did. On the very few times – in the early days, not so much in later days – we levelled with each other, I’d say Don’t bullshit me, Malcolm! He was a huge bullshitter. But he did talk to me about the cynical resentment he had – exactly the same as me. He did resent the Oxbridge comedy ‘passport’ to success though, at the same time, he wanted to get in with them. He wasn’t too good on those inroads, though.

“The first time we went up to the Edinburgh Fringe, Emma Thompson was doing a sell-out show. We did go along and see her and she was in the same venue as us – The Hole In The Ground.

“But he developed other relationships at that Edinburgh Fringe – with Arthur Smith and others – and he moved on. I was slower. I was a lot more introverted than Malcolm in terms of the whole social thing. I probably suffered more than he did from the whole insecurity thing, thinking I’m shit! and the whole thing.”

“Are you OK saying this in a blog?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Martin, surprised.

“The only semi-bad review Malcolm’s autobiography got,” I said, “was one by Stewart Lee in the Sunday Times which said it wasn’t analytical enough of Malcolm’s character – though Stewart did add that Malcolm wasn’t naturally someone who analysed himself. And he didn’t. When we were writing his autobiography, I occasionally tried to get Malcolm to analyse things he’d done and he wasn’t interested. And I figured it was an autobiography not a biography, so that was part of the nature of the person. He wasn’t analytical in that way and he did find it difficult to express his…”

“Me and Malcolm,” Martin interrupted, “were ‘family’ for a time. We grew up together. We started with that Hole In The Ground show at the Edinburgh Fringe, pushed it on and ended up going all over the world together and.. it was a big adventure.”

“Like brothers,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Martin. “I used to try and talk to Malcolm. Forget all that education stuff, I’d say. Here we are now. Let’s just enjoy ourselves. But I had to bludgeon him into it. Just sit and relax and savour all the memories. That dog when we were doing the naked balloon dance! Do you remember this? Do you remember that? That’s what ‘family’ is all about. It’s about memories and what you do together and fuck what anybody else thinks about it. It’s about what we did together and it was amazing!”

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In a brave new changing world, there is a season for killing Russian journalists

I was always crap at science in school. I used to regularly be bottom of the class in Chemistry. I once came next-to-bottom and the Chemistry master wrote on my report: “A fair attempt”. Shortly afterwards, he emigrated to New Zealand. This is absolutely true.

I was almost as bad at Physics, which I found excruciatingly dull. It was all facts and no ideas. Only much later did someone point out to me that, until relatively recently across the centuries, Physics and Philosophy were much the same thing, because Physics sets out to explain how the world works. If my Physics master at school had ‘sold’ the subject to me as that, I might have been interested.

When I was a kid, I used to think science and the Arts/showbiz were totally separate because the sort of people involved in one had a mindset totally different from the sort of people involved in the other.

Now the two have overlapped at the edges, with former D Ream keyboard-player Brian Cox (who ironically received a D grade for A-Level Mathematics) presenting serious BBC TV  science shows because he is a respected particle physicist with a professorship and is working on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

I am going to the Royal Institution tonight, to see their Ghost of Christmas Lectures Past event which features not just scientific authors like Simon Singh but comedians including Robin Ince, Helen Keen and Helen Arney.

Which becomes relevant because, earlier this week, I was talking to Damian Counsell, one-time biomedical scientist who now builds websites (one of them for Helen Arney) and who, in another incarnation, is singer with sophisticated soul and blues band Covered.

He also built the website which Index on Censorship uses for its online news and commentary and has, more recently, been building a site for the International Federation of Journalists to store information which field workers have collected about “media conflicts” in Russia.

It includes a database of Russian journalists who have been threatened, attacked, or killed in “suspicious circumstances”.

Within the database, there are nearly 700 names of journalists – yup, that’s 700 journalists – whose lives have been threatened, including many whose lives have ended “prematurely” – these names go back to several years after the Soviet Union gave way to an allegedly less oppressive Russia.

“Of course,” Damian told me, “these suspicious deaths aren’t all the result of hits by offended members of the Russian mafia or thugs in the pay of corrupt officials.”

He tells me there are other, more mundane causes of violent, non-accidental, deaths among journalists. And apparently there is a season for increased deaths among Russian journalists.

“In winter,” Damian says, “when the weather gets bad and journalists – who are already keen drinkers – sit indoors too long drinking still more vodka, the drunkenness can lead to bloody and fatal pub fights.”

But the main problem, of course, is not pub fights. Ironically, the main problem is increased political freedom in Russia or, at least, the perception of increased freedom.

“When people come out from under the boot of a particularly repressive regime, as the Russians have,” Damian says, “there is often what is called a ‘crisis of impunity’.

“People think they have got immediate freedom of expression. They think that they can criticise the regime and criticise powerful people with no consequences. But, of course, they can’t. So they get threatened or attacked, and, too often, if they don’t get the message, they get killed… So 700 names in a Russian database.

“There are many ways a ‘crisis of impunity’ can emerge,” he says, “and it’s difficult to predict when such a transformation will lead to such a problem and when it won’t.  Mexico does not fit this template, but is a very dangerous place to be a journalist right now. It seems likely that the ‘Arab Spring’ countries will become even more dangerous for journalists, but, oddly – despite relatively high crime rates in general – South Africa is nowhere near being one of the worst places to be a reporter.”

When I was young, scientists were scientists. Comedians were comedians. Boy band singers were boy band singers. And journalists, by and large, did not get shot.

Or it seemed that way.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

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Alien lifeforms, empty schools and sexual promiscuity in County Kerry

The people I am staying with on the currently rain-swept Iveragh Peninsula in south west Ireland obviously (despite the weather) have a refrigerator.

On a shelf inside the fridge is a 1,000 kg block of cheese.

On the wrapper are printed the words “EC Aid White Cheese”. The cheese is supplied free to locals by the European Union. You just go along and ask for it and you are given it. No-one knows why, but no-one is going to turn down 1,000 kg of free cheese.

EC Aid is part of the European Community’s Development Programme which stems from the Cotonou Agreement. The central objective of the agreement is “poverty reduction and ultimately its eradication; sustainable development; and progressive integration of 77 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries into the world economy”. Quite how my two chums living in considerable comfort with two cars and five TV sets in Kerry fit into this no doubt admirable scheme and qualify with all the other locals for 1,000 kg of free cheese, I know not.

But this odd circumstance is, of course, not a solitary example of a wee taste of the bizarre here in Kerry.

The local newspaper The Kerryman (established 1904) carries a headline:

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‘ALIEN’ INVADER WASHED UP ON VENTRY STRAND

PHRONIMAS, deep-sea creatures that inspired the Alien movies because of their practice of burrowing into their victims, were discovered on Ventry Beach last week.

The discovery is believed to be the first time creatures of this kind have been found in Kerry and, according to head aquarist at Dingle Oceanworld Katie O’dwyer:

“Phronimas are a type of amphipod, related to crustaceans, such as crab and lobster and they live in very deep oceanic waters,” she told The Kerryman. “They find a Salp, a type of Tunicate or Sea-squirt, and they carve them out to create a ‘barrel’ which they then live in.

“However, scientific studies have found that the bits of the Salp that are left when the Phronima is living in them, are actually still alive.”

The Phronima still has to swim around but uses the barrel like a little dwelling; as the food and water comes through it.

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The Kerryman’s editorial then rages at:

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BIZARRE SITUATION OF TEACHER IN SCHOOL WITH NO PUPILS

While the east Kerry Scoil Mhuire National School in Clonkeen has no pupils and is due to be shut down in the near future, a ludicrous regulation set down by officials at the Department of Education meant that for the last three months the school’s principal still had report for work every day at a completely empty school.

Since September this teacher, who was willing and waiting to be transferred to another school, was forced to fill his days compiling logs and rolls for a deserted school and wandering the empty classrooms and halls.

That this situation was allowed to continue, and was arguably ignored altogether by officials at the Department of Education, while schools the length and breadth of Kerry cry for additional teachers is nothing short of scandalous.

It’s a damning indictment of the culture of spin that exists and our government and the officials involved in this whole outrageous fiasco should hang their heads in shame.

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and, in even more personal social news, The Kerryman reports:

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KERRY’S LOVE CHEATS IN A RUSH TO LOG ON FOR AFFAIRS

Infidelity is on the rise in Kerry. According to figures published by website ashleymadison.com, which is designed to accommodate people who want to cheat on their partners, there are a huge number of people in Kerry seeking to play away from home.

The site, which was launched in Ireland in 2009, now has 3,692 members in Kerry. This is one of the highest figures in the country outside of the major cities. According to the site about a third of these users are women.

Users of the site, described as attached people by the website, can use it to flirt with other people who are married or in a relationship through online chat services and message boards.

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The AshleyMadison site’s slogan is:

LIFE IS SHORT. HAVE AN AFFAIR.

Perhaps my blog yesterday about the “feckin” nuns cavorting on a local beach during their summer holidays was not as odd as I thought.

Life in Kerry is never dull and often unexpected.

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