Tag Archives: India

I don’t care who my dead relatives were, but comedian Charmian Hughes does

My parents after their wedding

My parents after their wedding

My mother was born with only one hand. Her brother died of pneumonia when he was, I think, around 16 and she was around 11. She had no other brothers and sisters.

When he was in his early teens, my father ran away from home to join the Navy. But he was too young and they rejected him.

Eventually, he joined the Royal Navy when he was 16 in 1936, just in time for the Spanish Civil War in which British forces were not involved – although his ship dropped men off the Spanish coast late at night for reasons he was never told.

In the 1950s, he got tuberculosis and had to go into a sanatorium for a while.

My mother’s father, was a joiner and carpenter. He lived with us after he had a stroke.

My father’s father was a Merchant Navy captain

My father’s father was a Merchant Navy captain

My father’s father, was a ship’s captain. He died when my father was aged about three, so I never knew him.

Beyond my parents and grandparents, though, I’m not really interested in who my ancestors were. They’re in the past.

As far as I know, I am not in any way related to either Sir Alexander Fleming or Ian Fleming – therefore I am not due any money from penicillin or the James Bond books – and so I don’t much care what happened to unknown members of my family in the past.

About 20 years ago, some Canadian members of my Fleming family – whose existence we knew nothing about – tracked down my father and his sister in England. These Canadian Fleming’s were creating a family tree which they later sent to us. There was a surprising number of men in the family – about 3 or 4 – who died as a result of falling into the holds of ships – presumably while very drunk.

Arguably, other people have more interesting members of their families.

Charmian inherited her Victorian relative’s chest

Charmian inherited her relative’s chest

Last night, I went to see Charmian Hughes perform a rough run-through to an audience of six in her kitchen of her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe comedy show Raj Rage, about her trip to India to find out what happened to one of her female forbears caught up in the Indian Mutiny.

It’s a cracker of a story and I would not want to give away the twists and turns, but Charmian has more than one bizarre forbear in her family.

On the wall of the stairs at her home is a portrait of a distinguished-looking, uniformed man.

Charmian’s distinguished grandfather

Charmian’s distinguished grandfather

“That’s my grandfather,” Charmian told me. “My father’s father. He was Irish and was Postmaster General of India for about a week. He was supposed to be from Dublin, but you can’t find him anywhere if you try to look up records of his past. I think he re-invented himself. I don’t know why.

“And this oval portrait,” she said, “is either my mother’s great grandfather or her grandfather. My mother told me he was at medical school and, because he wanted to marry a woman his parents didn’t approve of, they refused to finish paying his fees so, my mother told me, he became what she called That other thing when you don’t qualify as a doctor.

Charmian’s less-distinuished relative

Charmian’s rather less-distinuished relative

“I asked my mother: What do you mean? A nurse?

Don’t be stupid! she told me. “Men aren’t nurses!

A physiotherapist? I asked.

No, no, my mother told me. You know… When girls don’t want to have their babies.

“He was a back-street abortionist when abortion was illegal. Women paid him with their jewellery. He lived in Cricklewood. They all lived in Cricklewood. The ten brothers and sisters all lived in neighbouring streets. I think he was the one who drank himself to death and, as a result, my grandparents didn’t have a drop of drink in the house.”

Charmian also pointed out to me an ornate carved hat stand in her hallway.

A hat stand nicked from the Russians?

Hat stand nicked from the Russians by Charmian’s granddad?

“My mother’s father,” she explained, “was a mercenary who went to Russia during the Civil War between the White and Red Russians after the Bolshevik Revolution and he came back with… well… with stuff. I think he was on the White side. Then he lived in Hertfordshire and he was a travelling salesman for a building materials company.”

Interesting.

Even fascinating.

And it is a very nice hat stand.

But I still have no interest in my own family background.

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Filed under Nostalgia, Russia, Spain

Adventure, mass murder and bananas. It’s the perfect Edinburgh comedy show.

Charmian and Kaye on the Ganges in Varanasi

Charmian (left) & Kaye last month on the Ganges in Varanasi

If you are going to perform for over three weeks at the always potentially rainy and windy Edinburgh Fringe in August, it is best to make your show about a glamorous subject simply on the basis that the research will cheer you up.

Comedian Charmian Hughes was in India last month doing 16 days ‘research’ with her friend Kaye Bachelard. Both were following in the footsteps of their earlier even more feisty relatives and trying to uncover what really happened to them.

Kaye had a relative who forsook the Jesuit priesthood for a woman. Charmian’s story was even more of an adventure and will be the basis of her Edinburgh Fringe show next year.

“Which section of the Fringe Programme do you think I should put it in?” she asked me last night after she and Kaye had run through their stories with photos and videos in Charmian’s kitchen.

“In the Comedy section,” I said, “because it will attract more bums on seats. It’s a real cracking adventure story – well, a double adventure story – the 19th century one and your own 2013 one. It’s got murder, mystery mayhem and all the rest – but you’ll make it funny with all the incidental details – the populace paying homage to a great man by giving him bananas is worth at least a titter.”

I asked Charmian to give me an ‘elevator pitch’ for her proposed show.

“It is,” she said, “about me and my friend Kaye going to find out about our families who had escaped from India – and WE ended up having to escape!”

“Who was the relative whose adventure you were following in the footsteps of?” I asked, on the basis that it’s easier to write blogs if you get other people to supply the words.

“Mrs Goldney,” said Charmian. “She got caught up in the Indian Mutiny. She escaped on the back of an elephant by climbing up its tail and disguising herself in torn-up petticoats as an Indian bride. She took shelter with the one-eyed scoundrel and the Rajah and she escaped from a mob who were trying to kill her by throwing her money around so, in the end, she had the same tipping worries as everyone else does in India. Do you think it’ll work?”

“Yes,” I told her. “It has a Three Act structure. It starts off like it’s going to be a gentle tale about two modern women on a trip to India following in the footsteps of their forebears… then it becomes a 19th century female Indiana Jones adventure story set in the Indian Mutiny, with people getting killed by being tied to the front of the barrels of cannons while others are beheaded and escaping on elephants…

“…and then we have the end bit of your adventure which we can’t say too much about in a blog because it would give away how you met royalty and why you thought – with good reason – that you and Kaye might be killed and/or bricked-up alive inside a wall. What is there not to like? It has adventure, mass murder and bananas – the perfect Edinburgh Fringe comedy show. And, because you both had short hair, people kept thinking you were lesbians and kept offering you double beds. So it even has the lure of sex in it. You just have to add in some Indian dancing…”

Charmian tests out an Indian dance last night

Charmian tests out an Indian dance last night

“No dancing,” said Charmian.

“There has to be,” I said. “It’s a tradition in your shows. You did the sand dance in two of your shows. This one cries out for you to do some Indian dancing.”

“No,” said Charmian.

“Well at least have a practice here in the kitchen,” I said.

And she did.

I have high hopes Charmian may, once again, dance in her Edinburgh Fringe show next August.

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Filed under Comedy, India

Toilet seats and the difference in the collapse of British & Russian empires

A bottom-shaped toilet seat as it was meant to be

A toilet seat as it was meant to be…

I flew to Kiev yesterday. I went to the toilet first.

They have tried hard at London’s Gatwick Airport.

There is a new ‘super-loo’.

The holes in the toilet seats are rectangular.

I checked my bottom before and after using one. My bottom is not rectangular. I was unable to check other people’s bottoms. But I suspect the design of these new ‘super’ toilet seats is a triumph of design over practicality.

A triumph of good intentions over actual effectiveness.

Some seats in the Departure Lounge at Gatwick have little flat surfaces next to them with plug sockets and USB ports so you can use and charge your computers and mobile phones.

All the sockets and USB ports had been switched off.

A triumph of good intentions over actual effectiveness.

Ukraine International Airlines were very attentive on the flight to Kiev. All the pilot and cabin announcements were, of course, in both Ukrainian… and in English as, I think, the rules say they have to be. At least, I think they were in English.

But the English was around 97% totally incomprehensible. It was like audio origami. I basically only knew it was English because of the polite addition of clear Thankyous at the end of sentences.

A triumph of good intentions over actual effectiveness.

A street in Kiev at 9.40am this morning

A central street in Kiev – or Kyiv –  at 9.40am this morning

So now I am in Kiev.

In an enlightening conversation last night, a local was telling me how the corruption system works.

It is a triumph of actual effectiveness over good intentions.

I say I am in Kiev… but actually I am in Kyiv. Because ‘Kiev’ was the Russian-approved Western spelling used in the Soviet era. Now Ukraine is independent. So now it is written as ‘Kyiv’.

As with all ex-Soviet states, there was and is a problem with the Russians.

I remember a historian (not British born) telling me in the 1990s what he thought was the difference between the collapse of the British Empire and the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

I do not know if he is right or wrong, but it is an interesting viewpoint.

The way he saw it, the British had conquered an empire but had, by-and-large, not fully integrated themselves within the local community, particularly in India.

In the Raj, they tended to live in British communities, go to British clubs and continue living their British lives separate from the local communities. Britain was always seen as their home country. They lived consciously as ex-pats.

With the Soviet Empire, the Russians, to a greater extent, colonised each country and moved their families and lives lock, stock and family barrel into them because they, perhaps, felt that all these other countries really were part of one great Socialist country.

When India got independence, by and large, most British families simply upped-sticks and left, mostly going back to their ‘home’ country – the UK.

But, when the Soviet Empire collapsed and satellite countries got independence, the Russian populations within those countries had psychologically, economically and physically integrated their families’ lives within the communities. They had no actual close family ties back in Russia. They were not expats living away from mother Russia. They were Russians who felt fully part of the satellite countries.

For example, in Uzbekistan, they were not Uzbeks yet, in Russia, they were not ‘real’ Russians. They had nowhere to ‘go home’ to. These were Russians who had been in Uzbekistan for generations and were now left stranded in what had been their home country and was now a foreign country.

Same thing in the Ukraine… exacerbated by a history of invasions over the centuries.

There is a heavy Russian presence in the east and in the south of modern, independent Ukraine. According to a 2001 census, 67.5 percent of the population declared Ukrainian as their ‘native’ language and 29.6 percent declared Russian.

They considered Russian their ‘native’ language.

Almost 30% of the country.

Almost all in the east and south.

This is not good.

Some people talk of splitting the country.

Mostly the Russians in the Ukraine. And the Russians in the Kremlin.

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Filed under India, Russia, Travel, Ukraine

England beat India in egg roulette + paranoia, killing baby girls, massacres

Egg smashes on forehead in Amritsar Test Match

Egg smashes on forehead in First Test Match at Amritsar

Almost a fortnight ago, I blogged about Andy Dunlop, president of the World Egg Throwing Federation, heading a team of top English egg throwers  bound for India for an acclimatisation period before Team England (surreally including a Scotsman) faced the might of India in a historic First Indian Test Match in the Russian Egg Roulette Series.

They cracked it.

Andy and the team have now returned to Britain in triumph.

You can see the BBC TV report here.

Yesterday, constantly interrupted by calls from the BBC and other media outlets desperate for puns about sporting eggsellence, he told me what had happened in India…

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We went to India for a couple of reasons.

To teach 1.2 billion people how to play Russian Egg Roulette.

And to assist/promote the campaign to end polio.

The former we excelled at, though we may not have quite reached our target figure.

The latter… we are getting there.

This is likely to be the 3rd year with no new polio cases in India, but there is still work to be done in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Over 20 innoculators have been killed this year in those countries due to religious-based fear, so they are going to be difficult to crack.

Our Indian trip took us Delhi, Lucknow and then to Amritsar. In the course of 10 days, we see-sawed from Upper Class opulence to the depths of destitution. You have to see and smell it to really experience it but, even then, you can’t with your full belly and the knowledge that, soon afterwards, you will be back in a 5 star hotel supping a beer which would cost the locals a week’s wages.

In Dehli we took part in pre-event publicity for the polio National Immunisation Day, when 172 million children under the age of five would receive 2 drops of vaccine in their mouths.

Then on to Lucknow, where we did more press and then went out into the Muslim community to assist the local teams. We were clad in bright yellow polo shirts adorned in Polio symbols, getting people into the booths, stopping traffic and explained that we weren’t there as part of a US-led conspiracy to sterilise the kids but to rid their community of polio. Suspicion, though, was deep and was openly displayed.

On our second day there, we did mop-ups: going from house to house, knocking on doors, child catching anyone who couldn’t reach over their heads to touch their opposite ear (a sign that they are under five) and didn’t have the little fingernail on the left hand painted purple.

When that process finished, we were whisked off to a Rotary-sponsored orphanage to see how they look after the abandoned children. Two of the youngest babies there had been brought in the week before after being found deposited on a rubbish dump.

A hundred or so tiny kids were being looked after and were looking after each other. The blind and autistic were being led by the able-bodied.  Great work was being done, but we noticed there were only three girl children.

It seems that girls are usually killed before being dumped… but the papers report that female infanticide is reducing.

Amritsar plays host to the First Egg Test Match next week

The Golden Temple in Amritsar: 45,000 are fed free each day

In Amritsar, we marvelled at the Golden Temple and the volunteer teams who run the kitchens which enable 45,000 visitors to be fed for free each day.

We learnt about the massacre in Amritsar in 1919, about Udham Singh, freedom fighters, revenge and modern day terrorism.

They didn’t mention the last, but the armed guards in the streets, the arrests and  recent events told us we were in  place of potential danger.

They didn’t mention the anti-Sikh riots which killed 3,000-4,000  in recent times, nor the fact that the 1919 massacre was carried out by local Sepoys and Gurkhas under the command of the Brits.

We visited the memorial to the 1919 massacre but we were not shown any memorial to the 1984 massacres.

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Wikipedia currently has a page listing some of the massacres in India. So it goes.

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Filed under Charity, Health, Humor, Humour, India, Religion

Edinburgh Fringe Russian Egg Roulette – and the First Indian Egg Test Match

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

Russian Egg Roulette at last year's Edinburgh Fringe

Russian Egg Roulette contest at 2012 Malcolm Hardee show

Last year’s increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at the Edinburgh Fringe included a celebrity Russian egg roulette contest featuring the likes of comedians Richard Herring, Arthur Smith and eventual winner Lewis Schaffer.

It was officially sanctioned and supervised by internationally-renowned Andy Dunlop, president of the World Egg Throwing Federation – himself a former Dutch National Russian Egg Roulette Champion and 2012 Birdman of Worthing winner.

Russian Egg Roulette will be back at this year’s increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show on 23rd August in the ballroom of The Counting House in Edinburgh.

The official rules are fairly simple, if messy:

Individual challenge against an opponent on a knock out basis. Players sit opposite each other, across a table. A tray containing 6 specially selected eggs will be proffered. 5 hard-boiled, 1 raw. Each player takes it in turn to select one and then smash the egg onto his or her own forehead until one player finds the raw one. The finder of the raw egg loses the game or match.

Today I feel honoured – indeed, humbled – to announce that, after long and careful consideration, the World Egg Throwing Federation has decided that this year’s contest at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show will be given the official accolade of Scottish National Egg Roulette Championship.

Andy Dunlop confirmed the details yesterday.

England egg team - Bell, Dunop, Bath and Leech

Hopeful Russian Egg Roulette team Bell, Dunlop, Bath, Leech

This morning, he and a team of top English egg throwers scrambled to get on a plane bound for India where, next week, Team England will be facing the might of India in a historic First Indian Test Match in the Russian Egg Roulette Series.

Andy told me yesterday: “The four of us have honed our skills in reiki, aura differentia and egg divining.  We won’t be relying upon luck.”

The match itself will take place in Amritsar, which Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday visited barefoot.

But I can reveal today the shocking truth that Team England will include a non-English ‘ringer’ – Scotsman Norry Bell, who has been brought in to boost England’s chance of success because, well, frankly, because the Scots are better than the English. As a Scot, Norry says he hopes to do well “as long as the eggs are wrapped in sausage meat and bread crumbs”.

I did ask Andy Dunlop yesterday why the team is representing “England” and not “Great Britain” and he was somewhat evasive.

“Hmm,” he told me, “we did consider that but, due to historical differences of opinion between the two nations, we decided to drop the Great Britain tag. And, apart from that, the damn Welsh would have complained about exclusion from selection.”

The other two team members, Stephen Bath and David Leech, look on Andy Dunlop and Norry Bell as joint team captains and say: “We would follow our captains anywhere, mainly out of curiosity to see what they do next.”

Team England will have a short period of acclimatisation before their match next Wednesday. During that acclimatisation period, they will be supporting the Polio National Immunisation Day on Sunday 24th February in the Lucknow region, as part of Rotary International‘s project to rid the world of this disease. And, on Monday 25th, they will help undertake a sweep of the area to ensure no children under 5 have been missed in the immunisation.

Amritsar plays host to the First Egg Test Match next week

Amritsar will play host to the First Egg Test Match next week

On Wednesday 27th, the big match itself will take place at the Mohan International Hotel.

The cost of the trip has been financed out of the team’s own pockets. They receive no funding whatsoever from any government, any polio campaign funds nor any charitable organisation nor Sport England. Virgin Atlantic declined to upgrade Team England from cattle to upper class on their flight, despite pleas. Two of the team are using their Air Miles. The others, Andy told me, “are too inexperienced” to have attained the right amount.

He also tells me that absolutely no chickens will be harmed and all eggs used will have been checked and declared unfit for human consumption before use.

The winners will receive a fine silver trophy. For the losers, there will be a carved wooden cup with a lid to hold the shells of defeat.

The 2013 World Egg Throwing Championships will take place in Swaton, Lincolnshire, on Sunday 30th June.

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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, India

There was a comic in England, a comic in India and a comedy critic in Kenya…

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

I guess other people’s half-glimpsed lives always seem more interesting than your own but, if you actually lived their lives, you would only be aware of the hole in your left sock, occasional toothache and a tendency to go to the toilet in the middle of the night if you’ve drunk too much tea before going to bed.

Ah…

Just me, then.

Yesterday, I blogged about chatting to comedian Bob Slayer after a This Is Your Laugh comedy gig in London and his plans to tour Europe with a Swedish rock group. This morning, he told me what had happened to him after the gig:

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Bob Slayer shortly before being kicked in the face

Bob Slayer just before he was kicked

I got kicked in the face by a girl from Slovenia… OK, I did ask her to do it but that doesn’t make it hurt any less…

I was walking home after This Is Your Laugh and I saw two young ladies drinking a box of wine on a bench in Mile End Park. Attracted by the wine, I decided to go over and say hello. They both told me to “Fuck off, weirdo!” Which I suppose is fair enough. A lone man approaching two young ladies in the park after midnight can be a little intimidating.

I was going to just walk on but decided that an alternative way to put their minds at rest might be to acknowledge the situation and at the same time show them that I was friendly.

So I asked them: “Do you want to kick me in the face?”

One of them simply increased her volume of “Fuck off, weirdo!”

But the other showed some interest.

“Can I really?” she asked, as she bounced up and down like a Ninja.

“Um… OK then…” I replied.

She leapt in the air like Chun-Li, spinning around as she did so, then landed her foot directly on my nose in what I believe was a perfectly executed ‘roundhouse kick’.

I didn’t have time to be impressed as I was instantly falling backwards and downwards like a sack of spuds. She didn’t need to tell me that she was a kickboxer but she kindly did anyway.

I was also very impressed with her after-care service.

She apologised a lot, then took out some wet wipes to clean up the blood and we drank her wine together for the next hour before I finally tootled off home…

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That story, if you know Bob Slayer, might not seem to be particularly exceptional.

But this morning, I also got an e-mail from amiable and – I suspect he would not want to be called this, but he is – sophisticated comedian Matt Roper. (He performs as ‘Wilfredo’.) He is taking a break abroad:

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Matt Roper with a hair of the dog

Matt Roper with a hair of the Indian dog

There are sights in India a man should never have to see.

At the top of this list is the sight of yours truly, waking up fully-clothed on a bed in a ramshackle beach hut with my top lip stuck to my gum and wearing just one bright pink sandal.

There is an alcoholic drink made in Goa called Fenny, made from the juice of cashew apples then suitably distilled. One glass with a mixer can make you feel slightly merry. Two can get you utterly smashed. Unfortunately, as I found out far too late, it is also used medicinally as a strong laxative.

I thought I knew India – and my own body – very well. But I have been far too cocky. Stomach cramps. The shits. Five long days spent switching between staring at a rattling ceiling fan and looking at the back of the toilet door. Squatting for five days straight can send a man mad. You can’t go anywhere. You daren’t move.

Many words can be used to describe India but boring could never be one of them. It awakens your senses.

The other day I witnessed a lifeguard on a jet ski almost accidentally killing a swimmer and I have spent an afternoon paragliding with a lesbian from Kazakhstan. I have been called ‘a shit’ by a girl from Eastbourne, which is quite wrong. A bit of a cunt I might be. But not a shit. They are two entirely different things.

A friend from England is here somewhere, following Amma on tour. Amma – a guru from Kerala known as ‘the hugging mama’ – is giving satsang today. My friend, it seems, has become a devotee. I just had a text from her telling me that she is (my friend, not the guru) ‘on the stage’ at 5pm. What she is actually doing on the stage is a mystery which will soon be revealed. It staggers my mind. But, with a bit of luck, I might get a hug from the infamous Amma. I just hope she doesn’t call me a shit.

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Meanwhile, doyenne of British comedy critics Kate Copstick continues her work in Kenya, where her Mama Biashara charity helps poor people (mostly women) set up their own small businesses by giving them small start-up grants. She sent me these extracts from her diary:

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Kate Copstick in Kenya last week

Kate Copstick working in Kenya despite men

Doris is waiting with some groups of Zimbabwean women (the ones who are having to do casual labouring to eke a living) who want a grant, so we head back to Corner to meet Doris and the Zimbabweans.

The women are very sussed. These are terrific women – smart, strong and sooooooo long-suffering you would not believe it.

Husbands divide into three categories:

1) dead

2) ”anaenda anakuja” (he comes and goes)

3) useless/drunkard.

The average number of children is around six.

The women are anything from first to third generation Zimbabwean refugee. Their community is VERY male dominated (albeit the men are useless or drunk) and their religion forbids the use of medicines. If someone gets sick, they pray.

Frankly, I am beginning to thing that the Amoxill/Piriton/Ibuprofen brigade are quite smart after all.

The first group we meet are planning to sell fresh ginger. They know the market, they know their suppliers and they are going (at my insistence) to do half wholesale and half retail to maximise profit. There are nine women in the group, with forty children between them and their total grant is just under £300.

It is around £30 each. And I think this business will fly.

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As I said at the start, I guess other people’s half-glimpsed lives always seem slightly more interesting than your own but, if you actually lived their lives, you would only be aware of the minutiae. Even Kate Copstick’s minutiae, though, are more interesting than the hole in my left sock. She adds:

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My cats are fattening up on UHT milk and tinned sardines. And so are their fleas (I suspect) on ME. Anything that is not a scab is a lump, anything not a lump a bruise. I am considering suing the manufacturers of Doom, the spray with which the air in my lair is heavy and which promises death to anything that crawls or flies.

I am off to scratch.

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Filed under Comedy, Drink, India, Kenya, London

The best way to flyer for an Edinburgh Fringe show – use mice and terrorists

Sameena Zehra and husband Mike in Edinburgh yesterday

Yesterday, I went to see Sameena Zehra’s totally fascinating Edinburgh Fringe show Tea With Terrorists.

Afterwards, I got talking to her husband Mike, who flyers in the street for her show.

“I’ve been a musician all my life,” he told me. “A Blues singer. My name is Dr Blue.

“I love flyering. I love the challenge of flyering because it’s a 5 or 6 second performance. It’s the time it takes for someone to walk past you. I’ve got to get their attention in those few seconds. They need to know what the show is; where it is; and I need to get them to take one of the flyers.

“I never ever give a flyer to anybody. They always take them from me. Because, if you force a flyer on someone, they will throw it on the ground. I’ve got a patter which I use. It’s got various forms. It’s about getting someone’s attention but mostly their eye contact. As soon as I’ve got eye contact, they’re going to take a flyer.”

“So,” I asked, “why am I, a passing person, going to be interested in this show by a comedian I’ve possibly never heard of?”

“Well,” Mike explained, “the show itself has got to have a very catchy title. So Tea With Terrorists... Immediately people’s ears prick up. If I get eye contact, then I have another line – where it is, what time it’s on, the fact it’s free. But, if they’re waivering and they’re still smiling as they walk away, I’ll go:

Sameena has the full backing of her husband

No tourists or terrorists are harmed during the performance of Tea With Terrorists.

“And that’s when I’ve got them… Then you can extend that 5 or 6 second window by adding a bit more patter. Once they’ve taken the flyer, I can usually stop them and talk to them.”

“Do you say And it’s my wife?” I asked.

“I do sometimes,” he told me. “Once I’ve got them, there’s then a patter which I’ll use to talk about the show. I give them four key elements without giving anything away.”

“And they are?”

“Sameena did actually accidentally have tea with terrorists. She was nearly shot in the Green Zone in Kabul. She has got a grandmother who curses. And a friend who is frightened of sheep… Now you’re smiling,” he told me.

“If they’re not smiling by the end of those four,” he continued, “they’re probably not going to come to the show.”

“Flyering does work better,” I suggested, “if you’re a performer or a close blood relation.”

“Well, obviously,” agreed Mike, “I have a huge emotional commitment in this. I’ve watched the process develop. This show hasn’t just fallen out of the sky. It’s a writing process that’s been going on for 18 months. Sameena brought the show here to Edinburgh last year, when it was called Punching Mice.”

Punching mice?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “that was an even better title to sell. I just stood on the street corner yelling PUNCHING MICE! and people came up to me and asked What the bloody hell are you talking about?”

“It was an earlier version of this show?” I asked.

“Yes. There used to be a sequence in the old show about punching mice as a form of stress relief.”

Sameena Zehra and her good luck panda without Jon Snow

Later, I asked Sameena about this.

“It’s pretty much the same story,” she said, “but it’s changed and it’s tighter. When I did Edinburgh last year, I had no idea what I was doing; I was pissing in the wind and it was a steep learning curve, but it was brilliant.”

“There are only really three comedians who tell gags in this country,” I suggested to Sameena, vastly over-generalising. “Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine. Everyone else is telling stories not gags.”

“Well, I’m not a punchline comedian,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for about a year and a half. I’m not a comedian yet. I am a storyteller and I will be a comedian. The new show I’m writing is much more comic, but I’ll still be a storytelling comedian.

“Tea With Terrorists is very much about fear being redundant: you have to live with joy, you have to deal with stuff. The next show I’m writing is about how we end up becoming the people we are.

“The working title is If Jon Snow Were My Dad, because I love Jon Snow and if he had been my dad instead of the emotionally incontinent parents I had, would I have been a different person? How much of our lives is inborn, how much accidental? I’m not going to say any of that directly in my show, but it will come out through the stories.

“It’s going to have lots of stories from by my boarding school days in India. I went to a school run by a Socialist headmaster and started by Henry Lawrence, who was a British army officer. He started it in 1857 for the children of British Army officers. It was very very weird.”

Sounds ideal for Edinburgh.

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Are Pipex/TalkTalk, BT and Virgin Media in a contest to be the most incompetent UK telecoms company?

Right… Standby for a pointless complaint about an insanely incompetent British company. Indeed, companies. No enlightening information. No message for Mankind.  Just a rant… You have been warned… What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t have a rant?

Is there actually no competent telecoms company anywhere in Britain?

Really.

A serious question.

BT treats its customers with much the same care and respect as the Libyan and Syrian governments treat its people.

But Pipex/TalkTalk appears to be in some sort of heavy-handed contest with BT and Virgin Media to win a prize as the most PR-stupid and professionally incompetent telecoms company in the UK. They seem to manage to be devious, deaf and incompetent simultaneously. At least Virgin Media is not devious, it’s just plain incompetent.

Virgin Media claims to have the fastest broadband in Britain but, in my first-hand experience, its broadband does not work for 60% of the time and constantly drops. Someone else I know reckoned, for her, Virgin Media’s broadband was perhaps 10% the speed of her former BT line for 90% of the time. Perhaps it has the fastest broadband in Britain over a measured two second spurt. Try to get any customer service, of course, and you might as well be trying to play football underwater.

As for Pipex/TalkTalk…

In the last five weeks, I have had five cold calls from them using an 0161 (Manchester) telephone number but actually phoning from abroad to avoid the restrictions on cold calling within the UK. When I asked the man with the Indian accent where he was phoning from, he said South Africa.

At least Pipex/TalkTalk’s people are comprehensible, if unwelcome. BT, in my limited experience, have ‘help centres’ in ‘proper’ India staffed by unfortunate people with accents more incomprehensible than drunken Glaswegians wearing gas masks. That’s not racism, it’s a rant against BT’s stupidity in having foreign help centres. They might as well have their help centres staffed by deaf mutes in Guatemala for all the good they do. When will BT realise that saving money on help centres costs them more in lost customers and disastrous damage to their already low image?

I used to be with Pipex. I left because they were generally incompetent, they couldn’t actually supply me with VAT bills and two separate Pipex people told me I had to make phone calls to them not use the internet because the Pipex online service was “insecure”. Not reassuring in a telecoms company. What I didn’t know then but do know now is that apparently Pipex routinely cut off customers who left them before the changeover date for a new supplier so that customers were left without a line.

Now they are trying to tell me they are part of Pipex/TalkTalk and are a brand sparkling new company and offer sparkling service.

I think Colonel Gaddafi’s spokesman has been saying much the same thing about the Libyan regime every few weeks over the last few months. I can’t say I’m convinced.

I work on the principle of three strikes and you’re out.

If I get cold calls, I ask to be removed from the list of the company. After trying this twice – or, if they’re lucky, three times – the phrase “Fuck off, you cunt,” tends to get used in the hope they put me on a list of people who perhaps don’t altogether want to be cold called and might just hurl random verbal abuse at anyone who calls me.

If I forced my way into the home of the chairman of Pipex/TalkTalk five times in five weeks, I somehow think the sentence “Fuck off, you cunt,” might be very justifiably used by him to me. If someone forces their way into my home, uninvited, via my telephone line, I feel much the same applies. If you come into my home uninvited, you can’t complain I am being unreasonably impolite if I tell you to fuck off out of it again.

I find “Fuck off, you cunt,” is often an effective deterrent to unwanted calls and far less hassle than complaining to any alleged regulatory body. With luck, the company has some list of abusive potential customers. Pipex/TalkTalk seem not to understand the words – simple enough to understand, I would have thought.

Like I say, five calls in five weeks.

Clearly they think it is good PR to circumvent the UK restrictions on cold calling by phoning from foreign soil. And clearly they think it is good PR to keep calling an ex-customer who is not a current subscriber and who had zero interest in re-joining them even before these annoying phone calls.

They’re not alone, of course.

I had much the same trouble with BT. I eventually left them when they would not stop making marketing calls to me despite the fact I was on the Telephone Preference Service list to receive no calls.

“We can’t stop marketing calls,” I was told by two separate BT Helpline people. “It’s another department… No, I don’t know which department. It must be one of our marketing departments.”

A friend of mine tells me the tale of BT harassing her dying mother with marketing calls which could not be stopped. It added to the distress of her mother in the months before she died. This same friend has had  a worse time than me – she herself had hassle from BT marketing calls for months and now has had computer-generated calls from Barclaycard for six months (using an array of different originating numbers and still continuing) because their computer got her confused with someone else. The calls say – “Please call this number”.

Can she get the calls stopped by calling the number(s) given? No she can’t. Can she get the calls stopped by writing to Barclaycard? No she can’t.

I am currently with the very efficient Sky TV, though their lines are supplied by the appalling BT and occasionally drop in two of my rooms. But, unlike the utterly unspeakable Virgin Media lines, at least they work almost all the time.

Sky seem to be the only British telecoms company that has anything like a customer-friendly policy – or a broadband service that works – or any corporate ideology that values PR.

So Rupert Murdoch is OK with me.

But perhaps I am tempting fate…

(There was a later mention about this in my blog on 22nd May)

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Bad language in Scotland?

Last night I went to a very interesting talk at the British Library by author and publisher James Robertson about The Guid Scots Tongue.

It was a bit like Scots comic Stanley Baxter’s legendary series of Parliamo Glasgow sketches in his 1960s and 1970s TV shows. But with genuine academic credibility.

James Robertson seemed to confirm that Old English developed into Middle English south of the border and into the “Scottish” language north of the border and that, ever since then, people have bemoaned the ‘fact’ that Scots is dying.

I remember Melvyn Bragg saying in his ITV series The Adventure of English that, before Henry VIII, English was a dying language only used by the underclasses. The upper ruling elite spoke Latin and Norman French. But, when Henry decided to split from the Roman Catholic Church so he could knob the wife of his choice, he created the Church of England and commissioned ’The Great Bible’ – the first authorised translation of the Bible into English not Latin. This was distributed to every church in the country and rescued English from its decline and possible extinction.

Last night, James Robertson pointed out that, when King James VI of Scotland took over the English throne in 1603, became King James I of England and brought the Scottish court to London, one of the things he did was to commission the 1611 translation of the Bible into English – the Authorised King James Version of the Bible – which was distributed to every church in England, Scotland and Wales. Ironically, it was never translated into Scottish and this strengthened the hold of the English language in Scotland.

My mother’s grandmother could not speak English until she came down out of the hills. She was born and brought up in the Highlands of Scotland and spoke Gaelic – pronounced Gaah-lick not Gay-lick. She only learned English when she came to the village of Dunning in Perthshire. Or, some might say, she only learned “Scottish” when she moved to Dunning.

Historically in Scotland, after a certain point, Gaelic was the language of the Highlands and so-called “Scottish” was the language of the Lowlands.

I have never believed there was such a language as “Scottish”. To me, it’s clearly a dialect of English (as opposed to Gaelic which IS a different language). Wikipedian debate will no doubt run for decades about it.

If you disagree, haud yer wheesht, dinnae fash yersell aboot it and try no to be too scunnered.

Most languages, dialects and accents are a dog’s dinner of sources. Fash apparently comes from the Old French fascher and ultimately the Latin fastidium. Scunnered apparently has its origins in Middle English. Nothing is pure, not even Baby Spice. Only the French try (unsuccessfully) to keep their language pure.

I was born in Campbeltown near the Mull of Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland. My home town pipe band played on possibly the dreariest song any Beatle ever wrote. When I was three, we moved to Aberdeen in north east Scotland. My parents had friends along the coast in Banffshire where the locals speak to each other in an almost totally incomprehensible dialect which theoretical academics now apparently call Buchan. I call it bloody incomprehensible.

A few years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, I think I saw a comedy show entitled 100 Shit Things About Scotland though I can’t seem to find any reference to it. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing. But one of the 100 shit things about Scotland I thought I heard was the fact “There are some accents even WE don’t understand”.

Bloody right. Buchan fer yin.

When I was eight, we moved to Ilford in England – it is theoretically in Essex but actually on the outer edge of East London. Over the years, I’ve lost my accent; I never chose to.

So what I’m trying to tell you is I’m interested in language. Perhaps you guessed that.

On the version of the recent Census form distributed in Scotland there is, for the first time, a question about whether you can read/speak/understand not just Gaelic but also the so-called “Scots” language – though how many supposed Scots language variations there might be I cannot even begin to imagine. The words people use in Dundee, Glasgow and Thurso are very different.

There are some great common words. Dreich is almost un-translatable into English in less than an entire paragraph. Crabbit is just a great and appropriate sound. As is Peelie-wallie and many others. But there are amazingly diverse words all over the UK – Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have wild variations in words, let alone Tyneside, North Norfolk, the Black Country and Devon. They are not separate languages, though.

English is a wonderful language because it has so many variants and has hoovered up so much from other languages – cascade, table and situation are all unchanged in spelling from the original French but pronounced differently. The arrival of radio, movies and then television may have homogenised the English language and be slowly eliminating a lot of dialect and accent variations but, with English now the de facto world language, there are going to be hundreds of variant languages growing up in coming years to rival past pidgin English.

Indeed, this seems to have already happened with BT call centres in India. I don’t know what they are speaking, but it’s no form of English I recognise.

Perhaps I am just mare than a wee bit glakit.

Several times in bookshops, I have picked up Irving Welsh’s novel Trainspotting and looked at the first page then put it back on the shelf. It looks too difficult to read, though lots of English people have, so it must just be wee me. I remember at school in Ilford, for some extraordinary reason, we had to read Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary and I found it incomprehensible in places; heaven knows what my English classmates made of it. They never said. Must be just me.

When I edited Scots comedienne Janey Godley’s autobiography Handstands in the Darkwhich reads a bit like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and the movie Gladiator – the two of us had to decide how to write quoted dialogue which could be printed on the page, as she was brought up in East Glasgow where dialect, slang and strong accents prevail. Should we write it with all the dialect words intact or spell words phonetically? Both of those would mean it might be difficult for readers in London, let alone New York or Sydney, to understand.

Eventually, we decided to slightly Anglicise the dialogue but to include Scots words which would be easily understandable to non Scots… and to print some words phonetically so there would be a feeling of accent – for example, we printed the “police” as the “polis” throughout, because that is how it is pronounced in Glasgow and it is a distinct yet not too confusing word. It felt like you were reading genuine Scots dialogue, even though it was slightly Anglicised. I was wary of using the Glasgow word close, which means an indoor stairwell, because, in Edinburgh, it means an outdoor alleyway.

It’s a sare fecht.

Look, I could go on for hours about this. Think yourself lucky it stops here.

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Apartheid is still alive and thriving in South Africa

A friend of mine works for a multi-national company which divides the world into geographical sales sectors.

The company has made a decision which apparently is not going to work commercially.

It has appointed an Indian as head of its South African sales force.

The problem is that he will not be able to meet the decision makers at the companies within South Africa which traditionally buy the specialised product.

Because the white South African decision makers will not meet an Indian.

As I wrote in a recent blog…

I’ve never met a nice white South African.

In the words of the Top Ten Spitting Image song: They’re all a bunch of arrogant bastards.

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Filed under Politics, Racism