“What’s it like being naked on stage?” my eternally-un-named-friend asked my temporary lodger Matt Roper in my living room last night.
Matt is performing with the Greatest Show on Legs in Totnes, Devon, next Friday night. This inevitably involves performing the naked balloon dance.
“You’ve just got to get on with it really,” replied Matt. “there’s no time to consider being nervous or not nervous: you’ve got to go on and do it. I think it’s a great honour to be naked on stage with nothing but a balloon and your socks on as part of Martin Soan’s Greatest Show on Legs.”
“I’m just going to urinate,” I said and went upstairs to the toilet. My iPhone kept recording.
“Martin is quite used to being naked,” my eternally-un-named-friend told Matt after I had left. “He’s done this sort of show a lot, so he ends up just standing around almost forgetting he IS naked. In my family, we were very familiar with walking around naked in the house. John’s family was not.”
“My family was not a nudie house at all,” said Matt.
“You didn’t sit and chat to your sister while she was in the bath?” asked my eternally-un-named-friend.
“We probably did when we were all little,” said Matt. “I was by far the youngest. At what point does it stop?”
“In Germany,” said my eternally-un-named-friend, there’s a park in Munich where everyone’s naked.”
“And,” said Matt, “when the East German state was in existence, nude beaches and nude life was a big part of the state culture, because you can have equality when everybody’s naked.”
“But in England,” said my eternally-un-named-friend, “it’s not acceptable at all.”
“Maybe I’m a little bit different,” said Matt, “because I’ve been so much submerged into alternative culture with Totnes and all of that. And nudity isn’t a big deal at festivals. Being naked and drunk at festivals, covered in mud.”
At this point I came back in the room.
“John doesn’t walk naked around the house at all,” said Matt.
“Ye Gods,” I said. “What have I missed?”
“Martin,” said Matt, “is in better shape than all of us in the Greatest Show on Legs and he’s the oldest.”
“It’s his lentils,” said my eternally-un-named-friend.
“Is that what you call them?” I asked.
“They’re keeping him fit and regular,” continued my eternally-un-named-friend. “And he doesn’t have a sweet tooth.”
“No,” said Matt, “ but he smokes and drinks and…”
“It just goes to show what poison sugar is,” said my eternally-un-named-friend. “He’s been here at John’s and you bring out the chocolate and he doesn’t touch it.”
“Martin,” said Matt, “banned sweets for his two daughters when they were growing up. I think he used to let them have sweets or chocolate on a Saturday. His daughters thought that sweets were illegal except on a Saturday. I grew up on all sorts of shite. Lots of E numbers and crisps.”
“Did you mention you were a life model,” I asked my eternally-un-named-friend.
“I was sort-of comfortable about it,” she explained, “except I wanted to be actually drawing instead of being the model. And keeping still is a real drag.”
“For how long?” asked Matt.
“Possibly a half hour. But within ten minutes you’re in agony. You can’t find a position to stay in that’s comfortable unless you’re flat on your back.”
“I’m saying nothing,” I said.
“Where was this?” asked Matt.
“Goldsmiths and other arts colleges.”
“Were you happy with the results?” asked Matt.
“No. They were just averagy.”
“How old were you?” I asked.
“In my early twenties.”
“How about naked balloons?” Matt asked. “Would you be comfortable with nudity for comedy purposes?”
“What? Me doing it?” asked my eternally-un-named-friend.
“I would not be comfortable with me doing something DRESSED for comedy purposes!” she laughed.
“The trouble with including a woman,” I said, “is that the balloon dance with the Greatest Show on Legs is asexual…”
“Yes,” said Matt. “That’s why we keep our socks on. There is something that de-sexualises it. Three naked men with their socks on.”
“I thought Martin should advertise socks,” said my eternally-un-named-friend. “I thought he could get sponsorship. He was wearing £30 spotted socks that his eldest daughter had got him when she was working at a posh men’s clothing company.”
“On stage?” asked Matt.
“No,” said my eternally-un-named-friend. “He was on a Lewis Schaffer‘s radio show and he had decided to do it naked.”
“There was,” I said, “a Malcolm Hardee Awards Show I staged in Edinburgh where a woman comic told me she wanted to take part in the naked balloon dance and I thought about it but figured you couldn’t add a naked woman because it would become sexual and then, also, there’s a physical problem because she has three bits to hide with two balloons whereas a man only really has one bit.”
“Why would it be sexual if you added in a woman?” asked Matt.
“I dunno,” I said. “I just felt it would.”
“I saw a funny act,” said my eternally-un-named-friend, “where a woman had a balloon stuffed down her shorts and she was taking the piss out of the Ch… the Ch…”
“The Chechnyan freedom fighters?” I asked.
“The Chipperfields?” suggested my eternally-un-named-friend.
“The Chippendales,” I said.
“Have you ever,” Matt asked my eternally-un-named-friend, “seen women at a male strip show: the way they behave?”
“Only on television,” she replied.
“Years ago, when I was eighteen,” said Matt, “I worked in a pub up north and they had a strip night in one of the rooms and I was on the bar and they were doing obscene things to the strippers.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Everything apart from full sex.”
“Oral?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Matt.
“This was just an ordinary pub?” I asked.
“Just an ordinary pub. I can’t remember what the occasion was. It could have been the Sandbach Ladies’ Darts Society.”
“Did they have erections?” asked my eternally-un-named-friend.
“The Sandbach Ladies’ Darts Society?”
“No. The guys.”
“Yes. But they kind of go out and, I guess ‘fluff’ themselves and then tie it up with an elastic band to keep the blood…”
“Oh gawd!” said my eternally-un-named-friend.
“…to make it look erect,” continued Matt, “when it’s perhaps not naturally erect.”
“Tying it with an elastic band?” said my eternally-un-named-friend.
“I think that’s pretty common,” said Matt.
“Well,” I said, “the Greatest Show of Legs always carry elastic bands for their Michael Jackson’s Thriller routine…”
“Which brings us back to Totnes,” said Matt.
“Are you the permanent third member of the Greatest Show on Legs?” I asked. “After the second we can’t mention.”
“I think it will probably have a rotating cast of members.”
“You will be rotating members?” I asked.
“Let’s talk about Totnes on Friday 21st,” said Matt. “The naked balloon dance is coming home. It was invented in Totnes. And (Matt’s on-stage character) Wilfredo, too, was invented in Totnes.”
“Both?” I asked.
“It is a fantastic place to live,” said Matt, “and it’s full of very creative, interesting people – a nice community – but there’s a very precious, almost slightly pretentious side to its attitude to art or artists’ attitude to their own art.”
“You don’t want to be quoted saying that,” I suggested.
“I’m quite comfortable saying it,” said Matt. “Martin and Malcolm (Hardee) had come across a group of militant feminists who were having a weekly meeting about how to wipe out Chinese foot-binding.”
“I think,” said my eternally-un-named-friend, “that John wrote about it in a blog.”
“I might have done,” I said. “I don’t read my blogs.”
“So they just created the balloon dance,” said Matt, “as a kind of statement.”
“And,” my eternally-un-named-friend asked Matt, “you created Wilfredo because…?”
“I was sick and tired of how seriously people were taking themselves and…”
“Keep talking,” I said, “I’m watching the penguin…”
The John Lewis Christmas ad was on TV.
“I’m watching the penguin too,” said Matt.
I switched off my iPhone and we watched the penguin.