Tag Archives: German

How did the chicken swallow the sword? German Humour in the 1980s

Martin the speech theraüist in Nurenberg last night

West Ham fan Martin in Nuremberg last night

Shortly after I got an iPhone – my first smartphone – I went to Kiev not quite understanding the concept of roaming charges. I did not use the phone. I was in Kiev for three days. On my return to the UK, got a bill for £170.

I am in Nuremberg at the moment with roaming and everything else apart from WiFi turned off.

I am staying with a very interesting man called Rudiger Schmidt, but there is a problem with his home WiFi and it is only now I am here that I find out Nuremberg is known for not having a lot of free WiFi.

I met a man in a bar last night – not a phrase you will often find in this blog.

He was – indeed, still is – a speech therapist called Martin (a German) from Hamburg who supports West Ham United football club and who visits the UK two or three times a year to see West Ham play. He told me not only that energy prices in Germany are rocketing (which is what UK newspapers are also currently obsessed with) but that bars, cafes and restaurants here (unlike in the UK) are increasingly wary of providing free WiFi for customers because of the unpredictable and increasing cost.

But enough of my cyber traumas.

This blog may well be eventually posted by pigeon.

My new chum Rudiger Schmidt’s main memory of coming to London in the 1980s is of a sword-swallowing chicken.

“Why did the chicken swallow the sword?” I asked.

“It was the 1980s,” Rudiger replied.

“Ah,” I said.

“It was a rubber chicken,” continued Rudiger.

“The performer,” I asked, “swallowed a sword which was inside a rubber chicken?” with vague memories of seeing this act surfacing in the back of my mind.

“No,” said Rudiger. “The chicken swallowed the sword.”

“That’s why it was so clever,” said my eternally-un-named friend, who had seen the act.

“A rubber chicken?” I asked.

Rudiger remembered the 1980s yesterday

Rudiger talked of DEBAKL last night

“Yes,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “Rudiger was so impressed with the chicken that he bought one himself… A rubber chicken… Did you then perform the act yourself in German?”

“I tried,” said Rudiger.

“Where?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.

“There’s a little children’s theatre nearby here ,” said Rudiger, “and we had a show in the 1980s called DEBAKL – as in ‘debacle’. It was an acronym for German Entertainment Needs Culture.

“I staged a show for adults every first Thursday in the month, when people who could do anything interesting for seven minutes could perform. They could do whatever they wanted to do. I moderated (compered) the shows. So I did the rubber chicken sword swallowing act there.”

“Were people impressed?” I asked.

“Yes, very much,” said Rudiger.

“But you’ve stopped doing it,” said my eternally-un-named friend, with a slight hint of sadness in her voice.

“It was in the 1980s,” explained Rudiger.

“Ah,” I said. “You did not want to be up-staged by a rubber chicken?”

“Yes,” said Rudiger.

“Do you still have the chicken?” I asked..

Not the actual sword-swallowing chicken

Sadly not the lost sword-swallowing chicken

“I have lost the chicken,” replied Rudiger. “We did the DEBAKL shows in the 1980s for about one year and then we stopped in about 1988 and then, maybe two years later, we did another two shows and stopped then, but we did another show in 2009 and I have a video. Do you want to see it?”

“For sure,” I said.

But sadly the chicken was not on the video, the video developed problems halfway through and, because of cyber problems, I cannot upload the footage.

Such is cyber life.

I feel cursed.

But the video did include a man dressed as a butcher who sang what appeared to be a traditional German song while wearing a blood-spattered white apron. He was standing by a small, furry toy pig and waved a meat cleaver as he sang. Rudiger told me that the lyrics were mostly Chop! Chop! Chop! Chop! Chop!

Another act had been videoed in the 1980s in a local underground station.

“You are not allowed to go in the tube without a ticket,” explained Rudiger.

The four man comedy group on the video danced to music for a DEBAKL audience of perhaps 20 people sitting on the steps inside the underground station.

“If the controller had come,” laughed Rudiger, “all of them would have had to pay!”

The four performers danced in a row. The first three had giant signs round their necks saying (in German) POTATO. The fourth had a sign saying HEAD. So, dancing, their signs read POTATO – POTATO – POTATO – HEAD. There was also a man dancing while wearing a vertical tube with a flat cardboard hat.

“What is he supposed to be?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.

“He is a tube of mustard,” explained Rudiger.

At the end of the act, through interference on the video picture, it appeared that objects were being thrown.

“The audience are throwing things at the performers?” I asked.

“Well,” explained Rudiger, “the acts could be extremely good or extremely bad but they had to be interesting. The audience could throw round metallic pot-cleaning sponges at the acts and we counted how many were thrown. The act which had most round metallic pot-cleaning sponges thrown at them won a prize.

“When the audience came into the theatre, each member of the audience was given five round metallic pot-cleaning sponges and you could throw one or two or more at an act, but you had to ration yourself because you only had five to last you for the entire show.”

“Did they,” I asked, “throw these sponges at acts they liked or at acts they hated?”

“It did not matter,” said Rudiger. “What mattered was if the act was interesting. One guy could make a cucumber glow. It was a really good act.”

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Yesterday at the Edinburgh Fringe: lifting groin flaps on Austrian flyerers and punching an Italian comedian

Otto Kuhnle (centre) and his flyerers. Don’t mention goats.

Yesterday morning, the lovely photographer Kat Gollock took pix of me at Fringe Central for the weekly piece I will be writing for Three Weeks throughout the Edinburgh Fringe. The first issue is out on Wednesday.

Afterwards, I was sitting talking to Giacinto Palmieri about his show Pagliaccio when I was hailed by 2009 Malcolm Hardee Award winner Otto Kuhnle, whom Three Weeks (nothing to do with me) called “bloody brilliant” – and he is. He had just arrived to perform his Ich Bin Ein Berliner show (starting today) for the next 22 days. It is billed – I am sure correctly – as an hour of Teutonic mirth, music and gnome juggling.

“Ah! You are Otto Kuhnle!” said Giacinto. “I did not recognise you without your hat!”

This is Otto’s fifth time at the Fringe. Before, he has performed with fellow German Henning Wehn.

“So this is your first solo show in Edinburgh,” I said to him after Giacinto had left. “Why now?”

“I have a little son,” he said. “Two and a half years. So the last two years I have been a little busy. This year was the first time my wife allowed me to leave the house for a month. The little child now starts to eat. Father has to earn the food.”

“And your show this year is…” I prompted.

“…a little autobiographical,” he continued. “I talk a little bit about Berlin. It’s a little bit tribute to my home town. Ich Bin Ein Berliner.”

“A Berliner is a sausage, isn’t it?” I asked. “They say President Kennedy got it wrong.”

“No, no,” said Otto. “In Berlin, ‘Berliner’ does mean a citizen of Berlin… But, in south Germany, it’s a doughnut.”

“I didn’t realise your show is not going to be straight variety this year,” I said.

“It’s half-and-half,” Otto told me. It’s really like a variety show, but all the things I am doing have a certain link to my life, the fall-down of the Wall and so on. It’s in the style of a variety show, but I am doing all the acts and also being the compere.”

“And your two friends?” I asked, nodding over to two men in shorts sitting on a sofa.

Otto admires the groin flap for his flyers

“I have imported two flyerers from Austria,” he told me. “One is a promoter who owns a theatre in Vienna; the other is a comedIan and both have never been to the Fringe before. I trained them in a little mountain hut far away and in little villages in Austria. I gave them fake flyers and they flyered everywhere to convince the villagers to do this and that. This was tough training and now they are prepared for the Fringe.”

“They flyered the goats in the hills?” I asked.

“Don’t mention the goats,” said Otto.

The flyerers were very polite and showed me the flaps in front of their groins in which they hold Otto’s flyers.

“Women in the street are very keen to take a flyer,” one of them told me.

But back to my earlier conversation with Giacinto Palmieri.

I blogged back in February about Giacinto’s show Pagliaccio which, he said at the time, “is about comedians living together at the Edinburgh Fringe and sharing a show and working together and it is a true story of unrequited love and jealousy between the comedians.

Giacinto prepares to fend off punches

“The problem with writing autobiographical comedy shows,” he told me yesterday, “is that your characters don’t stay on the stage. I have this ‘baddie’ in my story – an Italian actor. I paint quite a nasty picture of him. And now I am really worried because he wants to see the show but he does not know he is in it.”

“Will he recognise himself?” I asked. “He’s an actor. He might think This is such a horrible person it can’t be me.”

“But I even say the name of a show he was in,” Giacinto explained. “He is very, very recognisable. He wanted to come yesterday, but I made the excuse that I was too nervous because it was the first performance. I said I prefer if you come later in the run.”

“Can you remove the references to him without destroying the entire show?” I asked.

“Of course I can,” Giacinto replied. “But there are a couple of good jokes in there. It is a tough call. Would you choose avoiding a libel case or keeping a good joke?”

“A good joke,” I said immediately, “because the libel case brings more publicity. Is he Italian?”

“Yes. And he’s quite big,” said Giacinto, “which is what worries me more than a libel case.”

“Usually, people can get away with anything by saying it’s ‘comedy’,” I suggested. “You say you stretch descriptions and exaggerate reality to create a comic point of view.”

“But, from a physical point of view,” said Giacinto, “if I get a punch…?”

“If you get punched,” I said, “you have to make sure he punches you after you have alerted a photographer from The Scotsman. You have to ask him to give you some notice he is going to punch you – perhaps a couple of days.”

Lewis Schaffer was punched last year,” said Giacinto, brightening up.

“No,” I said. “that was a couple of years ago. And he wasn’t punched. Someone smashed his iPhone and he punched the guy. He said it was very empowering. Years ago at the Fringe, comedian Ian Cognito insulted Ricky Grover’s wife and Ricky – who used to be a professional boxer – knocked him out. The next day, though, Ian Cognito did admit he had been in the wrong.”

“If he comes to my show – the Italian actor,” continued Giacinto, “maybe instead of removing references to him, I will exaggerate. I might try to make it even more sarcastic.”

“You could make him part of the show,” I said. “You could say: That’s him sitting there.”

“I’m not sure about that,” said Giacinto.

“He can’t react badly or complain,” I persisted. “It’s a comedy show and he’s an actor. He has to be seen to take it in good spirit. He’s an actor. He’ll be the centre of attention. He’ll love it!”

“That’s true,” said Giacinto gloomily, clearly unconvinced. There was a pause, then he livened up:

“Of course!” he said. “Opera! This situation reminds me of the stone guest in Don GiovanniHe comes uninvited as a ghost because he’s dead and he comes as a statue.”

“You will be dressed as Pagliacci,” I said. “No-one will actually punch anyone dressed as Pagliacci.”

“But I have more problems,” said Giacinto, reverting to gloom. “The female in the story in my show is also in Edinburgh this year. It is all a bit sticky. It is all a bit… What’s the word…?”

“Dangerous,” I suggested. “I should leave town if I were you.”

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Three comedians & a baby in Australia + the problem of German stereotypes

(Part of this blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Things are looking up Down Under.

I got a message yesterday from Australia, which started:

Carlsberg don’t do Press Releases, but if they did perhaps it would read…

It then told me that amiable British sub-mariner turned stand-up comedian Eric had had a baby. Well, Helen had. This somewhat belated (it arrived on 31st January!) ‘press release’ read:

Tuesday December 27 2011 at Flinders Medical Centre, Adelaide, South Australia …. 09:03hrs ACDT (23:33hrs Monday 26 Dec GMT)

Blonde Hair. Blue Eyes. Both mother and baby are doing well. After a process that began on Xmas morning at 9am Both parents are tired but absolutely delighted.

Sorry we couldn’t notify you before, but we are exhausted and so are our phone batteries. This info is somewhat belated, but as you can imagine our lives have been literally turned ‘upside down’. We have been trying to send you this for a while now…

I also got a message from a euphoric Bob Slayer in Australia saying:

Hey, Mr John, The Drum magazine wrote a nice feature on me on page 21 in their centre spread and I had an interview on RTRfm Radio in Perth. I like to think that I managed to be surprisingly funny, considering it was 8:25am. I did not know before this there were two 8.25s in the day. My first show is tonight, tickets seem to be selling at a beautiful rate and I have negotiated free beer from the venue!

Comedian three in this blog is Paco Erhard, who is taking his 5-Step Guide to Being German show to the Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festival after a one-off at London’s Leicester Square Theatre on 13th February. This is the show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe last August and wrote about in a So It Goes blog and in Mensa Magazine (Paco is a member).

On his re-designed website, he quotes a line of mine:

Paco Erhard is a German comic, not a comic German

“Quoting a nonentity like me smacks of desperation,” I suggested to him. “And you have five star reviews you can quote from reputable publications. Festivals Review said you were one of the ten best shows at the Fringe!”

“Well,” he replied, “your quote expresses too nicely how I want to be seen to not use it.”

So what will Australians make of Paco’s German show?

“I try to refute German stereotypes,” he tells me, “but, ironically, I actually have quite a bit of difficulty making people believe I’m really German. I don’t look or sound stereotypically German enough, especially outside my solo show – ie in normal comedy gigs.

“Some people watch my act for 20 minutes, hear me talk about being German and they’ll still think Why is this Irish guy pretending to be German? It’s a weird, paradoxical situation. Should I put on a German accent and dye my hair blond, in order to convince people that Germans are not like they think?  It’s ridiculous that I should have to desperately convince people I am German, thereby conjuring up all the stereotypes that they allegedly hold about Germans, just in order to then blame them for thinking what I have just brought up and then telling them what we’re really like. Okay, this is an extreme description, but there is a bit of that involved in some comedy club gigs that I do.

“That’s why I like festivals more at present, because there the people come to see my show because they are interested in the topic and it is established well before the show that I am really German. That way I can just be myself more or less. However, I do have some sort of accent, so if I don’t say anything about where I’m from, they’ll sit there more focussed on trying to find out where my accent is from than on my comedy. Maybe I should just use my real name, Erhard Hübener. But I wanna see the MC who can pronounce that or the punter who will remember it after the gig, no matter how much he liked me. I could be on TV every day and, in the credits, I’d probably still be called The German guy. Oh well.

“I don’t think my show is a show about stereotypes. I try to go beyond that. But I do address the stereotypes at the beginning of the show. It’s important to me to do that in a clever, deconstructive, ridiculing way (although I still have one or two in there that are a bit naff… but hey, they get a laugh and I’m a whore…)… it would be a lie to say I don’t do stereotypes at all. However, I think you have to address them to get them out of the way. It would be silly to pretend they aren’t there. And, especially when talking to people who still cherish some of those stereotypes somewhere deep in their hearts, you have to pick them up where they are… they won’t follow you on the journey of your show if you depart from a point of knowledge or an attitude that they don’t have yet.

“I am off to Adelaide and Melbourne on the 21st of February and I think doing the Australian festivals will make me a much better comedian. In my comedy here in Britain I still lean on the (alleged) British-German conflict too much, which is one thing I really want to get away from. I was strongly influenced by my five or six years of being a compere to those Sun-reading package-holiday imbeciles in Majorca, most of whom I actually liked, but a considerable amount of whom gave me a lot of (stupid) shit about being German.

“Some Brits seem to think that they have a sense of humour or know how to be funny (there’s a difference between these two) when in reality they are just stupid, unoriginal and offensive. (But it’s okay, you know, because everybody knows that, just like fish, Germans don’t have feelings.) So I came to Britain thinking I would be up against a lot of hostility just because of my nationality and that I’d better talk about being German a lot and also giving them a bit of a hard time for being British. While I realised quickly that British people in Britain were very, very different from the ones I had encountered on Spain’s beaches, that old feeling of hurt and defensiveness paired with a certain aggressiveness remained with me for quite a bit of time and I think hasn’t completely gone away yet. It was a real epiphany a few months ago when I realised that most Brits actually quite like the Germans.

“Anyway, this whole issue won’t be, well, ‘an issue’ in Australia. Which will be a relief, a challenge and an adventure all rolled in one. I’m free of all that old We don’t like each other bullshit, that subconscious unrealistic feeling that somehow there is a rift between me and the audience (that I then involuntarily fortify by addressing it implicitly). I can’t use that as a crutch anymore. All of that material I had best forget about doing in Australia. They won’t care. So I will have to dig deep within myself for the things I really want to say. Which I already did to a large degree at the Edinburgh Fringe last August. But I know my show can definitely be further purged of all that. And I have a lot of stuff I’ve been wanting to say for a long time… and I will say it now in Australia. Also, I will improve the show’s structure a lot for Australia. And then I’ll bring all that back to Britain. (And also I will have free rein to say some rough things about Britain without hurting anybody’s feelings or getting bottles thrown at me :-D)

“I will need quite a bit of new material for Australia, but I see that more as an opportunity to finally use some great material I’ve been writing for years and that I never got to do.

“I have some concerns, but they are less to do with the art, than the marketing. I’ve been bitching about having gotten a lot of grief from Brits about being German, but being ‘a German comedian’ simply is a fantastic selling point in Britain. I do think I had a good or maybe even very good show in Edinburgh, so yes, I delivered, but I think lots of people came because GERMAN COMEDIAN stands out of the crowd more than “British white middle-class comedian, number 2417”. It’s a selling point and it helps me. Not when I’m on stage – then I better be funny – but to get people into my shows. And I don’t know if this selling point is quite so strong in Australia. They live on the other side of the world, so their attitude to Germany is bound to be very different from Britain’s, which has had a direct relationship with Germany – in good times and in bad ones – for centuries. They might not go for it as much. Who knows? I hope they do.”

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What Mensa members have in common with mental retards and paedophiles

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

UK-based German comedian Paco Erhard is a freak of nature, just as much as a sheep born with two heads is a freak.

At the Edinburgh Fringe this year, his stand-up show got two 5-star reviews.

Edinburgh Guide wrote he is a “stand-up genius… Paco Erhard is going to be big” and Broadway Baby said he is “insightful and hysterical” with “endless original jokes”.

I wrote a blog about him back in August

He is very amiable. But he s still a freak. By definition.

The newly-published November issue of Mensa Magazine has an article about him. There were at least two other Mensa members performing stand-up comedy at the Fringe this year, but I have not asked them if it is OK to ‘out’ them, so they shall remain nameless.

I have, however, asked Paco.

“I don’t mind being outed as a Mensa member,” he told me. “though I have no real idea what the reaction to this in Britain would be. In Germany I think some people fear and mistrust you a bit when you ‘out’ yourself as a Mensa member. But – Hey – Who cares? Just out me.”

Thus this blog.

UK-based German comedian Paco Erhard, like a mental retard, is a freak.

To get into Mensa, you have to get an IQ test score higher than can be achieved by 98% of the population. That does not put you in the ‘top’ 2%… It puts you in a 2% minority of freaks. Anyone different from 98% of the general population is a freak by definition.

IQ tests do not test intelligence. They only test the ability to score high in IQ tests.

They do not test intelligence because intelligence is as changeable as the Atlantic Ocean or a politician’s beliefs.

If I were travelling across the Sahara Desert in a Land Rover which developed a mechanical fault, even given surrealism as part of the trip, I do not think I would want to be travelling with Albert Einstein, because I doubt if Albert Einstein would be able to get the Land Rover going again. I would prefer to be travelling with some spotty, uneducated 16-year-old who is brilliant at mending engines but who is probably thought of as an idiot by everyone who knows him.

If he is in the top 2% of the population in his knowledge of engines, then he is a freak.

Education has nothing to do with intelligence just as IQ tests have nothing to do with intelligence. They test something but no-one can quite define what it is. People in Mensa tend to be computer programmers, teachers and socially inept. They do not tend to be raging successes at anything which would impress the Guardian.

I think the most interesting thing about IQ tests is the curve showing the distribution of IQ scores.

There are various numerical results according to which type of test you take – so a score of 110 may be given a totally different number on another test though it is scored by the same percentage of the population. By definition, the average IQ is always 100. And almost everyone lumps together in a fairly tight bunch on either side of that. The further someone’s IQ score separates from 100, the more freakish and odder that person is.

By 90 or 110, the graph of people’s scores falls precipitously. The interesting thing is that it falls evenly on both sides. The percentage of people scoring over 140 is roughly the same percentage as the percentage scoring under 60.

On the scale that Mensa uses, people have to score over 148 to get into the organisation – that is 2% of the population.

People who score over 148 are very definitely not ‘geniuses’.

They are freaks.

In very round numbers, the UK population is 60 million. The US population is 300 million. With 2% of the population eligible for Mensa membership, that would mean the UK has 1.2 million ‘geniuses’ and the US has 6 million ‘geniuses’.

That is obviously bollocks.

What IQ tests measure – in fact, what any tests about anything reveal – is divergence from the norm.

I remember hearing a radio programme quote the IQ figure at which people are clinically said to be mentally retarded. And it was higher than 52 – in other words, it was less far below the 100 average than Mensa’s 148 score is above the 100 average.

Let us not be PC, here. The people whom doctors used to call ‘mentally retarded’ do clearly think slightly different from Mr, Miss and Mrs 100 Average. That does not mean they are any better or worse. But they do not think in exactly the same way. As a result, they sometimes behave in what are seen as socially inept ways. The ‘bottom’ 2% of IQ scorers are, by definition, ‘freaks’.

For exactly the same mathematical reason, the ‘top’ 2% of scorers are freaks of nature. Anyone who is in the 2% furthest from the 100 score is a freak, especially as most IQ scores are bunched very close to that 100 average mark.

In very rough round figures, 70% of the population have IQs between 85 and 115 – that’s 70% scoring 15 on either side of the 100 average.

People who score between 70-85 (another 15 points away from 100) and 115-130 together account for only another 25%.

By the time you look at scores of 130-145 (another 15 point divergence) you are only talking about 2% of the population.

Mensa entry is 148.

You are not talking about ‘better’ or ‘worse’. You are talking, at both ends of the scores, about divergence from the norm, about brains and thought processes being wired-up ‘incorrectly’. You are talking about freaks of nature.

And, yes, the mathematics do not quite add up. They are rough numbers and I have always been shit at mathematics.

The point is that admitting you are a member of Mensa is a socially and professionally dangerous thing to do, because people get tremendously defensive, therefore aggressive and think you are a twat.

“I think some people fear and mistrust you a bit when you ‘out’ yourself as a Mensa member,” says Paco Erhard.

The Mensa Magazine piece that has just been published about him is, basically, the blog I wrote about him in August.

I joined Mensa in 1969 but never mentioned it to anyone, except a very very few friends, until the early years of this century. By that time, I was old enough to not give a flying fuck what people thought of me.

I took the test in 1969 in much the same spirit that I wandered into the Scientology testing centre in Tottenham Court Road in London one rainy day around the same time. It sounded interesting. And Scientology was certainly… interesting.

No, I did not become a Scientologist.

Nor am I a paedophile. Though admitting you are a paedophile and admitting you are member of Mensa are pretty much on the same scale of social acceptability.

I partly joined because I thought it might, on my CV, offset the fact I had decided to go to (what was then) The Regent Street Polytechnic and study for a Diploma rather than go to a university which would have given me a degree. The irony, of course, was that I could never mention Mensa membership because it makes you less attractive to any employer. No-one wants to employ an up-their-own-arse know-it-all. Which is the perception.

In the early 1970s, through bizarre circumstances, I happened to talk to someone about IQs and mentioned that I had joined Mensa – well, I don’t give a shit about name-dropping either – it was comedian Peter Cook’s then-wife. She said to me:

“You’ve got my sympathy. I know someone else with the same problem.”

She meant it.

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Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology

London is no longer an English city and who won World War Two anyway?

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Recently, John Cleese told an Australian interviewer: “London is no longer an English city… it doesn’t feel English.”

Last night I saw Arnold Wesker‘s 1959 play The Kitchen at the National Theatre in London. It was two hours twenty minutes long.

Good acting; showy direction; but it could have done with at least an hour cut out of it, an actual central plot added in and a decent end line with a point.

What was interesting about The Kitchen, though, was that it was set in the – no surprise here – kitchen of a large restaurant in 1959 with characters who were, in alphabetical order, Cypriot, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, West Indian and I think others… oh and English.

London, according to John Cleese, is not an English city in 2011.

But London was not an English city in 1959.

London has not been an English city for centuries – Jews, Huguenots, Flemings, Kenyan Asians, Poles, Albanians and, before them, Saxons, Normans, Danes and many many others all flooded in on different waves of immigration and invasion including the English.

The truth is, of course, that London was never an English city in the first place.

London was created by the Romans – a load of bloody Italians with all the foreign hangers-on who made up their army… all of them coming over here without a by-your-leave, taking our jobs and women and opening corner shops all over the place.

The Angles and the Saxons came later, lowering property prices in Londinium and Camulodunum – or Colchester as someone-or-other eventually re-named it. Camulodunum was not even a Roman town; the Celts had been there before the Italians arrived with their legions and ice cream shops.

The idea of London or anywhere else in ‘England’ being an English or even a British city is a myth, just as the idea that the British (and, as always, arriving late) the Americans won the Second World War is a myth.

The ‘British’ forces included Australians, Canadians, Czechs, Indians, New Zealanders, Poles, South Africans and many more troops from around the British Empire and elsewhere.

I remember a historian (an Italian one) telling me about the siege of Monte Cassino in Italy towards the end of the War. As he put it:

“A large Allied army composed of Americans, Moroccans, Algerians, Filipinos, Indians and Poles stormed the Cassino front.”

After the War, he got to know a German Panzer commander who had fought at Cardito, a hilltop a few miles away from Monte Cassino. The German remembered:

“We used to wonder each morning what colour the men coming up the hill would be that day. Coloured men of many races came up in waves. At the end of May, the Poles made it up to the top of the hill; they were the only other tall, blond men around apart from us.”

The Second World War was not won only by the British and the Americans.

And London, founded by the Romans, was not even originally an English city.

The English were and are just one group of foreign immigrants among many.

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At the Edinburgh Fringe, Paco Erhard is a German comic, not a comic German

(A version of this blog was published in the November 2011 edition of Mensa Magazine)

Paco Erhard is performing a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe called 5-Step Guide to Being German. We drank English breakfast tea at Fringe Central this week.

“There is an English obsession with Germany,” he told me, “but I think it’s getting less and less. It’s more or less the media who keep it going.”

When I met him, he had just got his first review for his show – a 4-star review – but, the previous day, he told me his show had not been successful –

“I didn’t do as well as I could.

“I am a German. Germany has got an inferiority/superiority complex. We basically have this feeling that nobody likes us and we have to stick together but we are better than everybody thinks we are. So, out of that inferiority complex comes a feeling of superiority and we have had that for too long. Germany has to change.

“As a kid, you don’t know what or who you are,” he told me. “Germany is a baby nation. Our country was just pieced together in 1871 and we don’t know who we are.

“The English are like the Germans. They no longer know who they are – the British Empire has gone; they can’t define who they are. The Scots are like the Bavarians. The Scots know very well who they are, what their traditions are and I would love Scottish-type patriotism for Germany. It’s a positive, very inviting patriotism.

“I like Scotland. I like America – I like how positive they are.

“I studied Literature and Philosophy at the German equivalent of the Open University, so I could travel. I lived in America when I was 17 and loved it – North Carolina – very friendly people and I watched lots of stand-up comedy on TV. That is where it started for me. I think it was more or less the year Bill Hicks died.

“I tried to be a writer for a long time but that meant I just stayed in trying to write and never went out meeting people I could write about. I was not quite normal. I got wrapped up in what I wanted the writing to mean rather than just telling a story.

“I did the whole writing thing until I was in Valencia when I saw an ad for a hotel entertainer in Magaluf and thought, Fuck it. That’s what I’m going to do.

“When I was in Majorca, I realised I liked being on stage and met my girlfriend of the time who was British. She had lived in Tenerife and persuaded me to do some compering and comedy there for British audiences there who were not, on average, all that clever. Wonderful people and I really enjoyed compering for them but, whenever I tried my stand-up, if I made any reference to anything that was outside Jordan and The X-Factor, they did not get very much out of it.

“If you add in a lot of racism and a bit of sexism, then you have a good comedy act for Tenerife. And insult people all the time.”

So did he add in racism and sexism?

“Well,” he told me, “I went to borderline things where I thought, I can still live with saying this and feel morally OK with it and not hate myself. But there was some stuff I could never have done with a clean conscience. It was not that terrible, but I would not like doing it for a long period.”

And did he get a lot of stick from predominantly English audiences for being German?

“Oh yeah, plenty! Sometimes I would say to someone in the front row: Don’t worry. Being German is not contagious: it’s not like you’re going to wake up at five in the morning with an incredible urge to invade Poland…

But, often, if I said that, the audience just sat there puzzled because, as my girlfriend explained to me, they had no idea what Poland had to do with anything. These were not 18 year-olds; they were all older people but, to them, the Second World War was just England v Germany and England won 5-1.

“I had lots of material I could never do and so, just over two years ago, I came to London to do ‘proper’ comedy. And, of course, my selling-point in Britain is that I am a German.

“There came a point when I came back from America when I saw my country from the outside for the first time and I started to not want to be German at all. I felt I was German but different. I was born in Munich but moved eight or nine times as a kid, so I saw how various parts of Germany are so different from each other.

“We do have a sense of humour but there’s a much bigger internal division between the different states and between people’s behaviour in public and in private than in any other country I know of. There is the personality you have in private and the face you show to the outside world. In the workplace, there’s no place for humour or screwing around. In private, you can be a completely different person.

“In Germany, there’s a lot you can hate and love at the same time, like the whole order thing. The precision is great, but sometimes you think Just relax. Let go.

“I was at a wedding in Hamburg a few months back – my girlfriend’s friends – and the father of the bride was told I was a comedian and he tensed up. He thought I would go round later making jokes about it and anarchistically destroy everything that he saw as beautiful.

“I think in Germany, there’s a fear of chaos. Humour is great, but it has its place; it is dangerous if there is too much because it might just corrode everything.

“That’s what I love about Britain. Things are more relaxed.

“Here in Britain, I want to be a comedian first and a German second. I do not want to be a comic German. I want German to be the adjective and the noun to be Comic.

A few days after our chat, Paco got a second review for his show – there had been a reviewer in the day before our chat – he had seen the show which Paco knew had not worked well – the show in which, Paco told me, “I didn’t do as well as I could.”

The Broadway Baby reviewer gave Paco Erhard’s 5-Step Guide to Being German a 5-star review.

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Filed under Comedy, Germany, Racism, Scotland

An unsettling story about an illegal gun and “an awful lot of firepower out there”

In a recent blog, I mentioned that mad inventor John Ward – a man of often admirable creative eccentricity – used to have a gun licence for several weapons. It was not something I ever found reassuring.

He now tells me this true story…

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One evening in the early 1990s, before the Dunblane massacre, I was at my local shooting range. It was not unusual for members to bring guests.

The evening went on its merry way with members blasting away at paper targets and seeing who had the best score. Then, at the end of the night, as we were clearing up to go home, a guest who had been watching asked:

“Does anybody mind if I use of the target area?”

No-one did.

So he went to the boot of his car, dragged out a bag and walked back to the shooting area which was a wall about twenty feet high and twelve feet wide made from old wooden railway sleepers because, as well as being a ‘stopping point’ for all the bullets fired in its direction, it ‘soaked up’ the bullets and prevented any ricochets.

The guest unwrapped his weapon and it was a German MP 40 machine pistol – also called the Schmeisser sub machine gun – of the sort that is a staple of World War 2 films when the German side is shown with automatic weapons – think Where Eagles Dare. It is the cheaper-made model that derived from the MP 38 but, for all that, it still killed folk efficiently.

Its magazine holds 40 rounds of 9mm ammo. It is not a sporting gun by any stretch of the imagination and, as such, was/is a banned weapon on these shores for obvious reasons and can only be legally owned by a very few people or dealers who hold a Home Office Section 5 Licence.

So we stood there with our mouths wide open and the silence was deafening. Our guest then inserted a magazine into the forward section of the MP 40, cocked the weapon, turned to us and said:

“I’m not sure how this is going to go as I have had it years and I’m not sure what noise it gives out.”

With that, we put our fingers in our ears – we had already cleared away our ear defenders/ear muffs – and… BBBBBBBBBBBBRRRRRRRRRR as our guest emptied a full magazine of forty 9mm bullets at the target area in about ten seconds – much like Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare in fact!

As the smoke cleared, he turned to us and said:

“Well! – that seemed to go alright, didn’t it?”

And, with that, he took the magazine out, thanked us, proceeded to put it back in the bag with the gun and took it to the boot of his car and drove off.

Afterwards, oddly, nobody could recall just who had brought him along as a guest…

For the next few weeks, I scanned the newspapers to see if there had been any ‘bank jobs’ done locally but there were none.

That was almost twenty years ago.

All this was and is illegal and, if caught with an MP 40, one’s future holiday arrangements might be arranged by Her Majesty for the next twenty years, but the streets of this country are nowadays awash with far more of this sort of stuff than ever before.

There is even more firepower in the MAC-10, which has 32 rounds of 9mm held a stick magazine housed in the pistol grip – a .45 calibre option was/is also available. The MAC-10 can empty its magazine in about 2 to 3 seconds flat.

It was put on test by the SAS but they refused to adopt it as it was inaccurate unless  – I quote – “you were having a fire fight in a telephone box”.

The MAC-10 is now a common fashion accessory among British drug gangs.

There is an awful lot of ‘firepower’ out there, perhaps some of it nearer than you might think.

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Filed under Crime, Legal system