Tag Archives: humor

Humour’s not a universal language – it’s a matter of personal or national opinion

I have sat through some weird shit in my time

Michael Powell’s movie Gone To Earth, Robin Hardy’s movie The Fantasist and Edinburgh Fringe stage show Sally Swallows and the Rise of Londinian. They spring immediately to mind.

And I can now add to that an ‘acclaimed’ Finnish ‘deadpan comedy’ movie The Other Side of Hope.

I was invited to an “influencer preview screening” in Soho yesterday afternoon. It was in English, Finnish and Arabic. With English subtitles.

The first person I saw when I arrived was Scots comic Richard Gadd. His factual movie drama Against The Law is being screened on BBC2 at the end of June.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m the lead actor in The Other Side of Hope.,” he told me, apparently slightly affronted that I had not known.

Some people will turn up to the opening of an envelope. I will turn up to anything which has the likelihood of free tea and salmon sandwiches. It does not mean I read the fine details of any press release.

“How come you are the lead in a Finnish film?” I asked Richard Gadd.

“Because,” said Richard Gad, “I am half-Finnish.”

“Heavens,” I said, slightly embarrassed, “I didn’t know that,”

“Well I am,” he told me, slightly wearily.

Thom Tuck (left) and Richard Gadd at Soho House yesterday

The next person I saw was comedian, writer and variably-hirsute thespian Thom Tuck, currently touring Britain in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman.

“Are you playing Willy?” I asked.

“No,” he said slightly wearily. “He is in his 60s.”

I thought it unwise to mention anything about ‘playing with Willy’ so, changing the subject, I said: “I didn’t know Richard was half-Finnish.”

“I only know how to swear in Finnish,” Thom replied.

“Don’t let me stop you,” I told him.

“Kusipää…” he said. “Vittu pois… Kivekset.” Then, looking at Richard, he asked: “Was my pronunciation OK?”

“Pretty good,” said Richard, generously.

As for The Other Side of Hope – the film we had come to see…

Well, as for the film…

What can I say…?

One selling synopsis for it is:

MORAL CLARITY IN PLURALITY
A poker playing restauranteur and
former travelling salesman befriends
a group of refugees.

It is about a Syrian immigrant from Aleppo during the current civil war who is in Finland as a refugee.

The film won the Silver Bear Award for Best Director at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and rave reviews for it include:

“Combines poignancy with torrents of laughter” (5-stars. Daily Telegraph)

“’Surreal and screamingly funny” (5-stars. The Times)

“I laughed, I cried, I shrieked.” (5-stars, Observer)

It currently has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score.

People say comedy is a universal language.

Well, I am here to tell you it is not.

Rikki Fulton, Scotch & Wry: too straight-faced for the English

I remember working for a cable or satellite TV channel (I can’t remember which) and, in trailer-making mode, I sat through three episodes of Scotch & Wry, a legendary successful BBC Scotland TV comedy show which I had never seen and which I don’t think had been screened on English terrestrial television. It was absolutely terrifically funny,

After seeing the three episodes, I went back into the office.

“Have you seen Scotch & Wry?” I started to say. “Isn’t it absolutely…”

“Yes,” said someone. “It is utter shit, isn’t it?”

That was the general English view in the office and I think it was because star Rikki Fulton et al performed everything utterly straight-faced. I think deadpan comedy works with Scots audiences, not so well with English audiences and it may ultimately be a Scandinavian thing,

I worked in a Swedish TV company with Swedes, Norwegians and Danes. Each nationality’s sense of humour was slightly different and the Swedes in particular were very, very straight-faced though equally humorous.

My experience of Finns is mostly meeting them on holiday – particularly in the former Soviet Union and, as a result, in cliché mode, I think of Finns as very very amiable but almost always paralytically drunk (there are licensing problems in Finland and the exchange rate between blue jeans and vodka in Leningrad was highly in favour of the Finns).

All this comes as an intro to my opinion of The Other Side of Hope.

The film very-noir in its original Finnish: it translates appropriately as “Beyond Hope”

It was like watching zombies perform some dreary social-realist drama about Syrian immigrants in a grey city. It made Harold Pinter’s dialogue and pauses seem like Robin Williams speeding on cocaine.

The film opened with a woman wearing curlers in her hair. She was sitting at a table on which stood a spherical cactus with thin spines sticking out. I thought: This may be a commendably weird movie.

Well weird it certainly was but, for me, utterly titterless. Not a single titter dropped from my lips, missus.

There was a 10-15 minute section towards the very end of the film which showed signs of very straight-faced, deadpan humour involving a restaurant. But even that was titter-free.

I have obviously missed something.

It is oft – and truly – said that Tommy Cooper could walk on stage, do nothing, say nothing and the audience would laugh. I have often wondered if some American or German or Latvian who had never seen Tommy Cooper before would have laughed.

And there is the never-to-be-forgotten lesson of Scotch & Wry.

I am prepared to believe The Other Side of Hope has them rolling in the frozen deadpan-loving aisles of Helsinki. It left me totally enjoyment-free. It was a bleak film about a Syrian immigrant in Helsinki in which people didn’t say much. But, then, I did enjoy Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness, I like eating kimchi and, as a child, I enjoyed cod liver oil.

The Other Side of Hope has had great reviews. It can survive without me.

As a coda to all this, I should mention that, as we went into the screening room, Richard Gadd told me he was not half-Finnish and he did not appear in the film at all. He had just been invited along to see it because he is an “influencer”.

This turned out to be true.

He is not in the film.

Yesterday afternoon was just totally weird. I also met a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head like Carmen Miranda. He was not smiling. He may have been an actor of Finnish origin.

Oh, alright.

I made that bit up. I did not meet a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head.

The rest is true.

Though I am beginning to think I may have dreamt the whole of yesterday.

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Filed under Comedy, Finland, Humor, Humour, Movies

“I went for supper at the drop-in center for street girls… Always entertaining…”

I have received a new missive from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, based in Vancouver.

I post it in its entirety with no explanation.

Because I have no explanation.


I wanted to send you an article about the family-run sex club in Nashville masquerading as a church but I see the Daily Mail has got it covered.

I was just roaming the corridors of St. Paul’s Hospital for two days getting more examinations… then I went for supper at the drop-in center for street girls… always entertaining… They found a small furry toy alien in the clothing donations box and a skinny girl who plays ‘crack whores’ on television (who said her father is a high school principal) was flying the beeping toy alien which resembled a miniature Teletubby around the common room to the amusement of all.

Last week, transgender women in the toilets were chastising the cleaning lady for wearing a flowery apron, telling her: “If you’re gonna clean up after US, you’d better start dressing like a French maid!”

Today I am working on costume and later rehearsing a strip show I am doing on Sunday at The Penthouse Nightclub here… We will be allowed into the club on Saturday afternoon so, surely to God, I will finally get a photo there. They forbid photos of the show but I am hoping to get pictures of rehearsal and backstage.

I am doing my Nurse Annie act and, on stage with me, my patient The Mallacan Pirate Queen will be playing electric bass after I revive her.


No, I don’t know what that last bit means either.

But my life here in Borehamwood seems comparatively dull.

Perhaps I should move to Vancouver.

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I ask about Musical Comedy Awards but get sidetracked by exploding intestines

Tamara Cowan was the one who brought up the intestines

“So,” I said, “he now lives in Austria or wherever, but you are his representative here on earth.”

“I think my official title is Creative Director,” Tamara Cowan told me, “but it’s sort-of producing and being The Man on The Ground. I am The Man on The Ground. We do it together.”

“How,” I asked, “did the annual Musical Comedy Awards start?”

“Ed Chappel set it up on his own nine years ago, when he was at Warwick University as part of an Events Management thing. He started it with online entries then hired out the Pleasance, Islington, for the final. The first one was won by Adams & Rea (no longer together as an act).

“The next year, Ed and I were both flyering for Bound & Gagged (comedy promoters) up at the Edinburgh Fringe and he thought it would be really fun to have live heats the next year. I had just had half my intestines chopped out and I was at home recuperating. I was lying there thinking: I don’t really know what I’m going to do when I get back to London. And he texted me saying: Oh, you seem to be good at comedy/chat stuff. Do you want to come and help me with it next time? In fact, I didn’t know anything about comedy.”

“Why,” I asked, “did you need to have half your intestines out?”

“Well, it was actually only a third. I exaggerated.”

“Even so,” I said, “it still begs the question Why?

“They had twisted.”

“Isn’t that what intestines do?” I asked. “Why had they twisted?”

“I don’t know. They twisted and then they got a bit infected and the doctors had to lop a bit off. Apparently it only happens to very young babies and very old people.”

“How old were you?”

“I was 25.”

It was this or a picture of intestines – Ed Chappel publicising the Musical Comedy Awards in 2009.

“The doctors,” I asked, “never mentioned why?”

“I did loads of research and it didn’t really explain it.”

“The doctors never said exactly why they wanted to chop bits out of you?”

“They had done scans and seen it had twisted and exploded.”

“Exploded?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have trouble digesting things now?”

“No. I have to eat quite a lot of fibre to make sure I ‘go’ regularly but, basically, it holds as much as it holds and, if it has less room to hold it, it will just push it out quicker. Tell me you are not going to write about this.”

“Probably.”

“Oh dear.”

“You were in hospital…”

“Yes. As the NHS was a bit overstretched at the time, I ended up updating my own chart sometimes because no-one else was.”

“The chart thing hanging on the end of your bed?”

“Yes.”

“You updated your own chart?”

“Yes. I opened it up and saw all the pictures and it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Your own intestines?“

“Yes. Open. Urghh! That near-death experience put me off acting.”

“Acting?”

“I did an MA at Mountview.”

“So you were an aspiring actress?”

“I was. But that near-death experience put me off. I thought I don’t want to be an actress and then I found comedy and thought This is more fun.”

“So you had a third of your intestines out then decided to move into comedy? There’s a pun there somewhere. We just have to find it.”

“Belly laughs?”

“Mmmm…”

“Gut instinct?”

“Could be.”

“So you moved into comedy but not as a performer, despite the fact you had wanted to act.”

“Well, going to drama school put me right off wanting to go on stage. Then having a near-death experience made me want more of a tangible career.”

“Why did learning to be an actress put you off being an actress?”

“It made me quite self-conscious because you over-thought everything. And, after the near-death experience, I wanted to actually do things rather than rely on people employing me. Rather than have casting directors decide if I was going to do something, I wanted to decide myself to create stuff and do things. And I found the Musical Comedy Awards at that point. It meant I could be in charge of making something actually happen and putting on productions.”

“You wanted to be in control of your own destiny?”

“Yes.”

“So, you organise the Musical Comedy Awards annually but, the rest of the time, you are…?”

“An assistant agent. I’ve been with Hollie Ebdon for almost two years now. I used to work in corporate property, but I gave that up because it was horrible. Have you ever worked in corporate property?

“No…. Anyway, you decided you wanted to be master or mistress of your own destiny so, after having a third of your intestines out and deciding not to be an actress, you went into corporate property?”

“No. I went into theatre administration and then got accidentally found and offered a job by a cool and fun property company but then they got capital investment and it all started turning a bit horrible. Then Hollie’s thing came up and she was the first person who had given the MCAs an opportunity because she had been doing the booking for the Wilmington Arms in Rosebery Avenue where we did jam-packed musical comedy days with people like Abandoman. That was in 2010.”

“You said earlier that, when you started, you knew nothing about comedy.”

“Well, when I finished at London Metropolitan University, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe and worked with Bound & Gagged for the summer, like I said, and someone had to explain to me who Stewart Lee and Nicholas Parsons were. I really didn’t know anything about comedy.

“Then I went and got a job at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, tearing tickets. Through that, I met Tracey Collins – Tina Turner, Tea Lady – and Charlie, who helps with the MCAs.  And this year we are magically ending up back there because there was a delay with the Underbelly. So, after ten years of not working at the Lyric, we’ve all ended up doing the Musical Comedy Awards Finals there this coming Monday.”

Everyone’s back at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, this year

“That is fairly weird,” I said.

“Yes. And then Ed Chappel found this bit of paper – an obituary for his great-great uncle, who was a famous actor in the early 20th century – and his great-great uncle’s first West End production was Of Mice and Men at the Lyric Theatre.”

“So you’ve been doing the Musical Comedy Awards for eight years. Getting bored?”

“I love the variety. Musical comedians are a mixture. You get people who are basically comedians but who can play a bit of music. Then you’ve got cabaret people. Then actors who are all-rounder triple-threats: acting/singing/dancing.”

“Is it easier,” I asked, “to hide weak material if you are a musical comedian? Take (I named an act). Their material is OK but their personality is so overwhelming you almost don’t notice some of their material is weak.”

“But isn’t that the same with stand-up comics?” Tamara suggested. “It’s all in the balance. If you had someone else doing Stewart Lee’s material, it wouldn’t be as good without his stage charisma and timing. In some ways, yes, musical comedy is easier because you do have a kind of energy level that comes with playing the musical instrument, but it is harder as well because you have a lot more balls to juggle and make it click and work and get the audience to buy it.”

“There are no real musical comedy shows on TV,” I prompted.

“I think,” Tamara responded, “that a musical comedy show would work well on TV, but I don’t think they want to take a risk.”

“Maybe because it sounds expensive ,” I suggested. “Like putting on 42nd Street.”

“But,” said Tamara, “it can be very cheap. It’s usually just a… well, a white guy in his early 30s with a guitar. People get musical comedy and musicals mixed up.”

“You still have no urge to pluck a ukulele yourself?”

“No. I’m almost tone deaf. I can’t sing in tune. I can appreciate music but I can’t do it myself. I used to play the saxophone. I wasn’t too bad but it did give me an awful rash on my bottom lip and you don’t want a rash on your lips when you’re a teenager. And it is almost impossible to do musical comedy if you have something in your mouth.”

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April Fools jokes can rebound on jokers

I am doubtful I would make a good woman.

It is April 1st today and yesterday I thought about planting a story I was changing gender and wanted, from now on, to be known as Jean Fleming.

But, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered setting it all up believably and the self-publicity was not necessarily all positive.

April Fool jokes can turn and bite the begetter.

As I write this, it is 09.30am and already April 1st stories have appeared, a couple good, one bad.

At 00.25am this morning, comedy club-runner Martin Besserman posted a Facebook message saying:

An excellent idea, because it is just about believable, especially at 00.25am in the morning. I almost fell for it, because Martin is an increasingly prestigious man, or so he tells me. In any case, what you remember longer-term is Monkey Business being associated with some sort of up-market area.

That man in the white suit on the left is a hologram. Or not.

When I woke up an hour ago, I had a Facebook message from Dan Berg of go-getting comedy streaming company NextUp saying:

Hey John, Hope all’s well! I remember you sat in the front row for our gigs so thought you might like this – a lil bit of NextUp technology which launched today so the front row is never too far away… http://lologram.co.uk

It was touting a new concept in which you can project video holograms of comedians in any location.

Exactly the sort of thing he and NextUp might do and it projected a PR image of a futuristic forward-thinking company. A comedy hologram called Lologram sounds like a great name. Good PR for NextUp.

Detailed but backfiring?

I also received an email from the Edinburgh Fringe which announced that they are building a roof to cover the area of the Royal Mile sponsored by Virgin Money… and they want you to fork out money to crowdfund it… So they have a financial sponsor (Virgin Money) and they want punters to help finance the financial sponsor.

A good April Fools joke – maybe – but one which rebounds as bad PR for the Fringe, given that it makes you wonder yet again what Virgin is actually sponsoring. Not the Fringe Programme, where a 40-word entry costs £300-£400 for 40 words and costs an arm-and-a-leg for a quarter page ad.

The seed is also planted in your brain (even though you know it is not true) that Virgin Money are calling themselves sponsors but do not have enough money and are asking ordinary people for crowdfunding to make what they do seem better.

April Fools jokes should be jolly, but not leave a funny PR taste in the mouth or egg on the face.

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Bizarre UK cannabis laws, photos of readers’ wives and drug-taking budgies

Rain – In my long experience, it seldom goes up AND down

This is often described as a comedy blog.

Sometimes it is. But I have always really seen it as an insight into seldom-reported sub-cultures with some quirkiness, eccentricity and WTF stirred in.

Yesterday Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent used the line “Strange things are happening”.

Yesterday, too, I was walking through my local outdoor shopping centre. It had started to drizzle and a woman whom I did not know, passing me by, said: “Rain! It’s up and down all the time, isn’t it? Up and down. Up and down.”

Afterwards, thinking about it, I figured out maybe she was referring to umbrellas not the rain itself. But she was not carrying an umbrella and neither was I.

Soft Secrets: a paper with a growing readership

Later, I had a visit from someone I used to work with at Granada TV in Manchester. I shall call her Mary from Manchester, though that is not her name and she was not born and does not live in Manchester. She is not in the comedy industry.

She was passing through London and had taken time off to visit a seed centre in North London. I thought perhaps she had been buying some geranium or petunia or marigold seeds but, no, she had been buying some cannabis seeds.

My disdain for the English legal system knows few bounds, but I was amazed to find out this was perfectly legal. And that, in the North of England, there is a major trunk road lined with emporia perfectly legally selling cannabis seeds.

Because, in the UK, it is perfectly legal to buy cannabis seeds even though it is illegal to grow cannabis plants from those same seeds.

I am an innocent in a weedy world.

Mary from Manchester showed me a copy of Soft Secrets, which bills itself as “The Cannabis Newspaper Since 1985”. It was full of relevant articles and advertisements. It was clearly a right-on paper read by right-on people.

So it came as a surprise that there was a Readers’ Wives page with photos of female wives and partners in various states of undress posing amid cannabis plants.

Fleshing it out – legally acceptable but politically incorrect?

As Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent said yesterday: “Strange things are happening”.

Then the subject of budgerigars came up.

Mary from Manchester told me – and I can only pass this on in good faith – that, in the 1970s, the famed budgerigar food Trill (which is made up of a fine and presumably tasty-to-a-budgie variety of seeds) contained – amid the various seeds – cannabis seeds.

If you were of a curious and adventurous disposition, you could throw handfuls of the aforementioned budgerigar food into the borders of your back garden and, with luck, after a time, some cannabis plants would appear.

Did budgerigars of the 1970s got high without flying?

Mary from Manchester and I paid a visit to my local pet shop yesterday and picked up a packet of Trill to read the ingredients but, alas, the variety appears now not to contain cannabis seeds. It does, however, make me wonder if it affected my grandmother’s budgie who was named Uncle Mac and who chattered away the whole time with a glazed look in his eyes and who, when ill, was given neat whisky by my grandmother.

We lived and live in strange days.

We always have.

 

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The late singer Leonard Cohen and the philanthropist Donald Trump and some strange things happening at the marina.

 

In the early hours of this morning, a missive arrived from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent. She lives on a boat in Vancouver.


Strange things are happening at the marina.

An old man on the dock, whom I’ve never met before, just greeted me with a cheerful “You’re back,” even though I have been nowhere for a month.

A friend of my extended family is an exotically dressed elderly socialite from Brazil named Benita. I feel imaginarily glamorous when I run into her. She thinks we are related. She tells me that I remind her of her aunt, the model Georgia Quental.

“She had red hair,” she tells me. “She was a free spirit like you…”

I don’t know Benita well but she is very fond of me and often wants to go out for tea. Sometimes I run into her as I am leaving the library. The last time I saw her, she greeted me, full of enthusiasm: “Anna, my darling! How was Brazil?”

I have never been to Brazil.

Benita grew up in Rio but attended an exclusive girls school on the eastern seaboard of the United States. She won an award for her artwork there. She says that one of her ancestors was a famous Scottish poet. She borrows his books from the library. I forget his name.

Sometimes she asks me: “Anna, don’t you miss South America?” as if I had left there recently

I have not been there since I was five. I missed it a lot as a child and well into adulthood. I still drink mate.

The last time I saw Benita, she told me she had just been in Greece.

“Ahhh, my darling,” she said. “You must go there. It is absolutely beautiful. I was on an island.”

“Did you go with your daughters?” I asked.

Two of her daughters live in Manhattan. They are very beautiful blondes and have worked as models. One designs jewelry and one is divorced from the heir to Budweiser. I am never sure which is which…

“Of course my dear,” Benita replied. “We were the guests of the designer, my daughter’s friend. What a gorgeous place he has, but you have to take a boat to get there. We were constantly on boats. It was beautiful. We went to Leonard Cohen’s house. He had a house on the same island. His grandchildren are living there now.”

Benita wants me to visit Rio with her. I tell her I can’t go yet, because my health is still a bit delicate. Which it is.

“You need,” she told me, “to take Palo Santo (a herb) and Ayahuasca ( a powerful hallucinogenic).”

We don’t have to go to Brazil to get Ayahuasca. There are people in North Vancouver doing it in their basements.

Two years ago I ran into Benita after I had been at a small protest against Donald Trump. There were only twelve protesters. The others were all Mexican. It was after Trump had made his comment about Mexicans being rapists.

I thought Benita would be glad I had been standing up for Latin Americans, so I told her: “I protested against Donald Trump.”

She looked a bit confused. “Why?” she asked. “What did he do?”

I told her about his comments.

“That’s strange,” she said, looking puzzled. “He is always very nice to my daughters. He always pays for their ski trips to Vermont when they go with his daughter.”

Strange things are happening.

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AIM – The end of the Iceman’s live act? + Van Gogh and the boxing kangaroos

The Iceman holds a Christmas card inside the Festival Hall.

Iceman holds a Christmas card inside the Royal Festival Hall. (And why shouldn’t he?)

At the beginning of December last year, I received 10 e-mails and 22 JPEGs of paintings of blocks of ice from my speciality act chum The Iceman. His stage act involves melting blocks of ice. That is his entire act. I blogged about it.

He said he was now calling himself AIM – Anthony Irvine Man – and suggested I should write a new blog entitled:

THE PAINTER FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE ICEMAN BREAKS/DOUBLES VINCENT VAN GOGH’S RECORD, SELLING 2 PAINTINGS IN HIS LIFETIME.

Since then, we have had a chat about it. We met in the Topolski Gallery/Bar under Waterloo Bridge in London.

“You told me the man who bought your painting,” I said, “was going to explain why.”

“Yes. He wrote to me,” said The Iceman, taking out a piece of paper. “He says: The paintings of The Iceman are honest, charming and…”

“Cheap?” I suggested.

One of The Iceman’s acclaimed paintings

“Honest, charming and fascinating” – his faux-naïf paintings

“No,” said the Iceman. “I got him into three figures…The paintings of The Iceman are honest, charming and fascinating. He is an artist whose practice has developed at a glacial rate over a lifetime and each act seems considered but not over-thought. His fixation on ice, the melting process and how that relates to him – his life experience – in a symbolic way – is intriguing and perhaps even deep…

“He wants to buy a second picture. He says: The faux-naïf handling of paint is suggestive of Basquiat or perhaps Dubuffet and art brut. In any case, it is defiantly anti-slick or perhaps anti-consumerist. It is refreshingly populist work, like a kind of ascetically-charged graffiti, piquant piracy, shades of Nolan’s Ned Kelly series.

“So you are at last being properly considered as a serious artist?” I asked.

“Yes. I feel it’s time to do a proper exhibition. I’ve done about 137 paintings now. They need to be displayed en masse. I have finally found my métier. I think I am just going to keep producing. My subject matter is rather consistent.”

“Blocks of ice,” I said.

“Yes,” said The Iceman.

“So are you not going to do live performances any more?” I asked.

“I don’t think so. I never realised I was a painter until this late in life.”

“If Hitler had realised his destiny was to be a painter,” I suggested, “we wouldn’t have had all that trouble.”

The Iceman in his studio earlier this year

The Iceman hard at work in his outdoor English studio in 2014

“I am thinking,” said The Iceman, “of increasing production: doing one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.”

“Won’t that devalue your unit retail cost?” I asked.

“You are right,” mused the Iceman. “Maybe I should slow production down instead.”

“All your paintings are based on photographs?” I asked.

“Yes. Stills of my blocks of ice. Or stills of moving pictures of my blocks of ice. I could not paint without the photo.”

“Why not?”

“Actually,” he said thoughtfully, “that might be my next series of paintings. The imagination series. I think I have developed my own style.” There was a long pause. “I don’t know what my style is, but it is recognisable. On my website, I’ve got every painting I’ve ever done. I sold one photo off my website – Block 183 – so, technically, I have sold two pictures: one was an oil painting and one was a photograph.”

“You are on a roll,” I said encouragingly. “How have you survived financially?”

“I work with teenagers,” said The Iceman. “It’s educational work. Helping them realise their potential. But I don’t play football.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I have done some odd things,” The Iceman continued. “I did a boxing kangaroo act. I was the referee in a duo with a live kangaroo. Circo Moira Orfei in Italy. She was a fading film star. I had to go round saying Cugino! Cugino! Her cousin was called Filippo.”

“Did you live in a tent or in a caravan?” I asked.

“I lived in a truck with the kangaroo – there was a partition. We had a kangaroo and then collected a younger one from the airport, so I ended up living in the truck with two kangaroos. The poor young one got a lot of rollicking from the older one.”

“How long were you with the kangaroos?” I asked.

“A couple of months. I had to run away on Christmas Day.”

“Why?”

“I had a fracas in the audience and the acrobats were angry because it was at the moment of their ‘death-defying balance’ and so they were all out to get me because I caused them to stumble. I ran away and they ran after me running away, but they didn’t catch me.”

“It’s not their area of expertise,” I suggested.

“I suppose not,” said The Iceman.

“Tell me more about the boxing kangaroo,” I prompted.

A kangaroo boxing poster from the 1890s

A proud tradition – a poster from the 1890s

“We did the routine in a proper boxing ring and we knocked each other out – the other guy, Filippo, and me – quite a slick physical banging routine. Then I had to get the kangaroo by its tail and drag it into the ring. The first day, one of the roustabouts from Morocco tripped me up and I fell on the kangaroo’s bottom, which got a big laugh. Once the kangaroo was in the ring, I was supposed to give him his mating call and irritate him and dig him in the ribs. Then he gets angry and tries to get hold of Filippo.”

“Why didn’t he try to get hold of you?”

“Because Filippo was teasing him as well and he was more experienced in annoying the kangaroo.  Filippo told me I was too kind to the kangaroo in the ring. The poor thing had boxing gloves on, so it looked like he was boxing but he was trying to grab Filippo round the neck. Sometimes, he would get him round the neck and one of my jobs was to release the forepaws if the kangaroo was really angry. If the kangaroo was really, really angry, he might hold onto Filippo with his forepaws and kick him to death with his hind legs. Kangaroos have very strong hind legs but their forepaws are less strong.”

“You did this job just for kicks?” I asked.

“There was a lot of comedy,” said The Iceman, “because he would kick Filippo and I, as referee, had to tell the kangaroo off.”

“You never got kicked?” I asked.

“Not seriously. His irritation was more directed at Filippo… I have slightly mixed feelings talking about all this. It is quite sad when you think about it. But I was young. The animals I felt sorriest for were the tigers. The circus had elephants who killed some of the people.”

Death defying circus stunts were common back in the day

Death defying circus stunts were common

“In the audience?”

“No, the people looking after them. But the tigers just went round and round. Terrible conditions, really. I’m not really very pro-circus, animal-wise. Looking back, it was all a bit sad, really. That image of the tigers is the one that haunts me most. They had gone mad and were going round and round and round.”

“You toured with this circus?” I asked.

“Not for very long, because I had to run away from the acrobats.”

“When was this?”

“Around 1980.”

“When circuses were circuses.”

“Yes. So many animals. Birds, vultures and incredible trapeze artists. There was a clown who played the saw. Every cliché.”

“Why were you working in this circus?” I asked.

“I used to go to clown workshops at the Oval House in London. To me, to be a proper clown in a big circus was my apotheosis. Is that the right word?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Why an Italian circus?”

“Because I met the mother of a clown. His father had died in the ring.”

“Killed by an elephant?”

“I have no idea. It seems unlikely.”

“That was your only circus experience?”

“Yes. I moved on…”

“To…?”

“Experimental theatre. In those days, there were a lot of small-scale touring theatres.”

Iceman painting - “I have never painted anything without quite a strong feeling.”

“I have never painted anything without quite a strong feeling.”

“You should paint kangaroos,” I suggested.

“No. Only ice blocks. That’s my genre. To depart from that would spell doom. Each picture I have done is unique.”

“They are all blocks of ice,” I pointed out.

“But they are each unique,” said The Iceman. “I have never painted anything without quite a strong feeling.”

“Quite a strong feeling of…?” I asked.

There was a pause. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “That is a very good question…. Maybe a feeling of bringing something alive long after the event when it existed.”

“Giving eternal life to a transient thing?”

“That could be it,” agreed The Iceman.

“Let’s assume it is,” I suggested.

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