Tag Archives: Ken Dodd

In Sohemia: God bless the onion-like layers of the English class system

(A version of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post)

I once interviewed Nigel Kneale, author of the still extraordinarily excellent BBC TV series Quatermass and The Pit.

He was born in the Isle of Man and told me he thought being a Manxman had helped him as a writer because his upbringing was British but he also simultaneously felt an outsider.

I do not have that advantage – though, born in Scotland but having lived my life almost entirely in England, I feel Scots but distanced; British but not at all English.

There is a layer of English society – or perhaps several overlapping onion-like layers – which floats.

I exaggerate, of course.

But there is a level of intelligent, sophisticated and moneyed English people who glide through life. They may not feel they have money; they may even struggle financially; but they know they have the security blanket that they are never going to fail utterly and end up in the gutter with no friends, desolate, unable to keep body and soul together.

This last week, I went to the Sohemian Society for the first time and I think that layer was visible. The Society is ostensibly a celebration of the culture and history of Soho, which has always had a Bohemian element to it. But Soho overlaps into Fitzrovia and both those areas attract interesting people. Perhaps half or more of the audience, though, had never heard of the Sohemian Society; they had come along specifically to see the speaker that night.

Before the talk started, a couple of women behind me were chatting about the actress Dulcie Gray, whom they had known; the very amiable man who sat next to me turned out to be the editor of a very exclusive reference book; the speaker that night, Andrew Barrow, had written a biography of Naked Civil Servant Quentin Crisp whom he and others in the audience had known.

Of course, grim reality enters into everyone’s life. Dulcie Gray died earlier this month aged 95 and, alas, was mostly forgotten by Middle England. The very exclusive reference book edited by the man next to me – like all reference works – is under an economic sword of Damocles held by Wikipedia and the internet in general. And Quentin Crisp died twelve years and one day before the Sohemian Society meeting, now just a footnote in English social history, perhaps even seen as a fictional character in some long-ago gay film – Didn’t he appear in that chest-buster scene in Alien?

And then there are the melancholic memories of what might have been but never was. The would-be Icarus characters who might have flown through English artistic life and might even have missed the sun but who never even took off.

Author Andrew Barrow was talking to the Sohemian Society (which is open to all – anyone can wander along) about his book Animal Magic: A Brother’s Story

It is about his brother Jonathan Barrow, who was killed with his fiancée in a car crash just a few days before their wedding in 1970. Jonathan was aged 22 and, a few days after his death, Andrew found the manuscript of a very bizarre novel Jonathan had recently finished writing.

In The QueueJonathan included several mentions of head-on car crashes and, in a another scene, there was another dark premonition of what actually did happen after his death. The church booked for his wedding ceremony did become the venue for his and his fiancee’s funeral.

Their funeral was just a few days before the day on which they had been going to be married.

Judging by the extracts read by Andrew, The Queue is wildly surreal, featuring a cast of humans, animals and hybrids.

When Andrew showed the manuscript to Quentin Crisp shortly after Jonathan’s death, Quentin said: “Your brother looked healthy, happy, natural. He could have played head prefect at Eton. But everything else about him is extremely odd. Not faintly odd. Extremely odd.”

The Observer has said the book treads the thin line between “brilliance and total barminess”.

The Independent on Sunday says it is “a wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous … with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals”.

That would be the hens and stoats and toads and suicidal owls, a central dachshund called Mary who is an alcoholic drug addict and extremely promiscuous, a spineless hedgehog, a human sheep old enough to remember Disraeli and a fish specially-trained by the police for “complex underwater retrievals” which gets lost down the drain in a dirty bookshop in Soho.

Not your normal novel, then.

Though very English.

Someone in the audience asked Andrew if he thought it would have been published if Jonathan had lived. The answer was yes, almost certainly, because Jonathan (who had a job in advertising) knew lots of publishers.

Jonathan Barrow, it seems to me, was one of those people who would have glided through life; he seems in retrospect to have had a wonderfully artistic and creatively fulfilling future ahead of him, gliding through English society.

But, in a handful of seconds, his timeline stopped.

It can happen to anyone.

Ars longa. Vita brevis.

The sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head, held by a thin thread.

Andrew Barrow has now had Jonathan’s book published.

And his own book Animal Magic – about Jonathan and about The Queue – has also been published and been described as “a funny, dark memoir. Think Tommy Cooper describing a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.”

Which may be a good description because, in his youth, Andrew tried to be a stand-up comic – mostly, he says, by nicking Tommy Cooper’s gags.

He admits he was awful.

But he himself is almost as interesting as The Queue.

He is intelligent, sophisticated, witty and a good writer.

He introduced the legendary Daily Telegraph obituaries editor Hugh Massingberd to Ken Dodd at the London Palladium.

He has lived.

Country Life magazine described Animal Magic as “Deft, witty and poignant”.

The Lady wrote: “This book ultimately belongs to Jonathan, and it is testament to his sibling’s skill that he appears here so vividly, his supreme peculiarity preserved”.

To the Sohemian Society, Andrew Barrow said: “If just one reader writes to thank you and say they enjoyed a book you have written, it makes it worthwhile. You hope to make them laugh. If they laugh and cry, that’s even better.”

Amen.

God bless Englishness.

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What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

Yesterday, 20-year-old American comedian Bo Burnham started a two-week tour of England. He has his first album out, has been commissioned to write a movie, MTV recently ordered a television pilot from him and, in January this year, he finished Number One in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown in the US – a public vote on the twenty greatest Comedy Central performances. But he is still mostly unknown in the UK, despite being that new phenomenon ‘an internet sensation’ and winning the much-publicised Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe.

I wrote a blog a while ago about Ken Dodd which started off “Morecambe and Wise were not famous” and mentioned, as an aside, that “fame is relative and mostly regional

One response was from Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing farter. He has performed all over the place and, at various times, been fairly famous in Sweden and in Japan because of his television appearances there. Far more famous than in Britain, where farting in peaktime is still frowned on.

He responded to my blog by saying: “I always find it interesting when I go abroad and do a TV show with a person who is that country’s Steve Wright or Jonathan Woss – a big fish in a small pond but none-the-less raking it in. My problem has always been that awareness of Mr Methane is spread globally rather than condensed in a certain geographical area which makes it harder to get bums on seats and make some serious money.”

The Scots comedienne Janey Godley has had a Top Ten bestselling hardback and paperback book in the UK and regularly (I have seen the figures) gets over 500,000 worldwide hits per week on her widely-posted blog. But if she were to play a theatre in, say, Cleethorpes in England or Peoria in the US, she would not necessarily sell out the venue’s tickets in the first half hour they went on sale, because she has had relatively little English TV exposure and her fame and fanbase is spread worldwide not concentrated locally.

To be a big ‘live’ star in a country, you still have to be on that country’s television screens fairly regularly. A massive internet following may not be enough for you to make shedloads of money on tour. I would lay bets that some amiable but relatively talentless British stand-up comedian who appears on a BBC3 panel show will make better box office money on a UK tour than the equally amiable and immeasurably more talented Bo Burnham who is, indeed, that legendary beast ‘an internet sensation’.

In 2009, Mr Methane was on Britain’s Got Talent. Several clips of that appearance have been posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing, one of those clips

has had over ten million hits. But those ten million plus people are spread across the globe, so how does Mr Methane, in that awful American phrase, ‘monetise’ the awareness of his existence? He can market products online, which I know he does very successfully but, if he were playing a live venue in Peoria, would he fill the auditorium?

The result is that, as Mr Methane observes, you can often make more money and be more ‘successful’ by being a big fish in a small pond rather than being an internationally recognised performer. Financially, it is usually still better to have 10 million fans in the UK than 30 million fans worldwide.

iTunes, YouTube and other online phenomena are still in their infancy and may well change all that and Bo Burnham may be one of the trailblazers.

The now-dying record business created international stars selling millions of discs worldwide who could tour on the back of that success. But without television exposure and with only a few exceptions, that has not yet happened for comedy acts. You still need local TV exposure.

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This comic cross between a dating website and Time Out listings magazine

Yesterday, I read Jon Kudlick’s article on the Chortle comedy website explaining why he was quitting his life as a stand-up comic after four years.

“Basically,” he says, “stand-up is not compatible with being married and having a family to support. And the vast majority of the comics I’ve met on the professional circuit are divorced or single.”

My experience of comedians also brings me to he conclusion that stand-up is not ideally compatible with a relationship because most comedians are barking mad and could provide a good psychiatric researcher with original material for a period at least as long as Ken Dodd’s career.

An hour after reading Jon Kudlick’s piece, an unsolicited e-mail plopped into my InBox from DoingSomething.co.uk

How this new dating site got my address or why is a mystery to me. But they offered “a three month trial period” if I used the code “haha” when I joined. Their selling line was: “Lots of comedy happenings in the next few months in London. You could do a lot worse than taking someone new to some comedy…” and they plugged five upcoming comedy events including Dave Gorman’s Screen Guild at Hoxton Hall, one of the current Heroes of Alternative Comedy gigs organised by Bob Slayer and – just generally – the Soho Theatre.

If these are paid-for ads, they could be on to a winner – half dating site/half Time Out. And, given Jon Kudlick’s assertion that most comedians are not in a steady relationship, targeting anyone connected with the comedy world seems a shrewd marketing idea.

Yes, I did sign up for the site, partly because I am a Scot brought up among Jews and it was free, partly because I wanted to see what was on the site and partly because I can also see three months blogging potential in it.

If you look like Katharine Ross in The Graduate or Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid – and you win the lottery – do get in touch.

It must be bizarrely difficult to start a dating site from scratch and they seem to be offering free three-month trials to all and sundry. There seem to be plenty of twentysomethings on it, but people in that age range barely need a dating site. In my age range (well, the one I put in to test it out) there was just one single woman in the whole of the UK suitable for me. And I put in anyone anywhere. She is interested in baking. That’s a start. Maybe not.

I may stay on the site for three months and see what happens. If you scour the site for me, THIS what my profile picture looks like.

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The god-like comedian Ken Dodd is more mugger than con man + he got a standing ovation in Bournemouth

Morecambe and Wise were not famous.

Yes, they were justifiably famous in the UK. But go to some village in western China and ask them who Morecambe and Wise were.

M&W are and always were total unknowns except in the British Isles.

Fame is relative and mostly regional.

To save my life, I could not tell you who the world water ski champion is. But presumably he or she is a Big Name if you follow water skiing.

The world is full of champions, each famous in their own little world.

I see quite a lot of club comedy and what is still called alternative comedy. Some of the acts are called comedy stars; some may even think they are stars. Audiences even flock to and fill large venues to see some of these people who have appeared in TV panel shows.

But they are not big stars even in the UK. They are minor and transient cults with a few disciples. Admittedly they have more disciples than Jesus did when he started but, just because you can get more than twelve people to listen to you in a room above a pub in Camden Town, don’t start thinking you are more famous than the Son of God.

Unless you are known and regarded in awe by a random 50-year-old housewife in a bus queue in Leamington Spa, you are not famous in UK terms. If you can fill a big venue at the Edinburgh Fringe with 23 year old fans for 27 nights, you are not famous. You are a very minor cult.

Last night, I saw Ken Dodd’s show Happiness at The Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth. Ken Dodd is unquestionably famous in the UK and the venue was filled with a well-heeled middle-of-the-road, middle class Middle England audience of the type TV commissioners mystifyingly ignore. This audience was the great TV-viewing audience en masse on a rare trip out to see a live show.

Upcoming shows at The Pavilion include The Gazza and Greavsie Show, Roy Chubby Brown, Joe Pasquale, Jethro and Jim Davidson. Never, never, never underestimate the Daily Mail. Their readers are the mass audience. Admittedly Dylan Moran and Russell Kane also have upcoming shows at The Pavilion, but the phrases “sore thumbs” and “stand out” spring to mind.

London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer has a routine in which he says his ex-manager told him he will never become famous unless, like a currently ‘famous’ alternative comedian, he can be a true professional and tell the same jokes in every show and repeat each show exactly.

Last night, the first half of Ken Dodd’s 5-hour show proved the danger of being too experienced and too professional a performer if you are on a long tour.

There was an audibility problem.

This was partly because the sound system at The Pavilion was occasionally indistinct – certainly where I was sitting, centre right in the audience – and partly because Ken Dodd, after 55 years in showbiz and on his seemingly endless UK tour, has been doing the same routines and telling the same stories for too long. He came on stage and spoke what, for the first part of the show seemed to be a script which he had got so used to he didn’t actually perform it: he just threw the words out. He galloped and gabbled through the words and syllables with the result perhaps a quarter of what he was saying was indecipherable.

And this was an audience with possible inbuilt hearing problems where I half expected the colostomy bags to break during the show to create a tsunami that could have washed the entire population of Bournemouth into the English Channel.

When an established act, instead of saying “Ladies and gentlemen” says “lay-ge-me” and all the other words and phrases are gabbled and elided indistinctly in much the same way, he is not performing an act, he is going through the motions on autopilot. He has heard the jokes 1,000 times; the audience has not (well, not most of them).

His saving grace was an astonishing gag rate of perhaps one potential laugh every ten seconds. And the material is gold. You couldn’t go wrong with that material. But Doddy was getting laughs because the jokes (when heard) were good, not because of any technical skill in the delivery.

There are very few successful gag tellers in modern alternative comedy – Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine are exceptions not the rule. Most successful alternative comedians nowadays tell stories: not necessarily funny stories, but stories told funny.

Ken Dodd mostly told gags in the first half and funny stories in the second half (in which he found his feet more). But it struck me that his slightly more old-fashioned (or let’s say traditional) approach was very similar to inexperienced circuit comics today.

He told stories as if they were gags, with token links between each story, but with no over-all arc. If he told ten stories, the first and second might have a token link and the seventh and eighth might have a token link, but there was no over-all progression, no shape, no thread to the stories. So the over-all effect was like getting beaten round the head with gags by a mugger for five hours, not drawn into a personal fantasy world by a con man, which is what a stand-up comedian is.

It struck me Doddy’s unlinked gag structure was very like comics new to the current comedy circuit who have some material but can’t stitch it into a unitary act. They can do 10 or 15 or 20 minutes but are not yet capable of putting on a 60 minute Edinburgh Fringe show.

I suppose the transition from beating people into submission with barrages of gags rather than bringing them into your own personal world with smoothly-linked stories is a relatively recent development which Doddy has no need to embrace because he has so many gags and stories which he can throw at the audience from his years of experience.

Because he is so experienced and so good, I could not tell how much of the second half was scripted and how much he was just plucking and throwing in gags and stories from a mental storehouse.

One ad-lib which surely must have been planned and, indeed, ‘planted’ was a piece of banter with the audience in which Dodd asked a woman “How many children do you have?”

“Eight!” came the unexpected reply.

Dodd professed bewilderment at this and meandered for a couple of sentences about her husband, then asked:

“Have you sewn up the gap in his pyjamas yet?…. (pause)… You know what they say… A stitch in time saves…” (Immediate audience laughter – though strangely not as much as it deserved)

This cannot possibly have been an ad-lib. It had to have been planted in the audience because he feigned bewilderment at the initial reply of “Eight,” which he would not have done in the way that he did if it were not a lead-up to the punchline.

There were also glimpses of an unexpected (to me) Ken Dodd – a ventriloquist act with a Diddy Man doll that almost verged on being post-modernist and a sequence in which he was doing a series of very passable regional accents and which went into a whole non-Ken-Dodd realm.

Small numbers of the audience left during the single interval – including the friend I went with, who had been exhausted by the first two and a half hours – she went paddling in the sea by the pier and then found a strange Greek Orthodox priest intoning his way through a Paschal Celebration in a small chapel watching by an old woman with a bell and an old man in a shabby grey suit. He had started at 10.00pm – about halfway through Doddy’s show – and was still intoning, watched by his two fans, at 15 minutes past midnight after Doddy’s show had ended and we went to see if he was still going strong.

Whether Christianity or Ken Dodd’s shows will last longer is a moot point, but they probably have the same fans.

At the end of Ken Dodd’s Happiness show, people rose from their seats to leave while still clapping and, partially blocked from leaving by other people possibly with mobility problems, this turned into a standing ovation and a sudden flutter of flashes as people with mobile phones snatched quick photos of the god-like Doddy on stage.

The standing ovation in both the stalls and the balcony was warm and heartfelt and passionate but perhaps was more for being a national institution than for the show itself.

It was an event as much as a show.

Much like Jesus preaching to the converted, in retrospect, it will be loved, treasured and much talked about and the Master’s fame will spread, though perhaps neither further nor wider nor to western China.

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The sweet smell of “Tiswas” – custard pies and anarchy…

I was re-watching the first episode of The Story of Variety with Michael Grade on BBC2 last night and, in it, comedian Ken Dodd says that his memory of the old variety theatres is “the smell of oranges and cigar smoke”.

I worked on the ITV series Tiswas – allegedly for children, but watched widely by students and the more anarchic of adults – and my memory of being in the live studio on Saturday mornings is of sweet-smelling toiletries.

The ‘custard pies’ used throughout the show were actually made from highly-whipped shaving foam because the mess would stick to clothing and faces but would easily and cleanly wipe off afterwards.

There were also often multiple mini-explosions in the studio. I don’t know what they comprised, but the air afterwards always smelled a bit of talcum powder.

Sweet-smelling. That was Tiswas.

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All good comedians are barking mad and, when alone, howl at the moon and eat their own egos.

(This blog appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

Yesterday I had lunch with a comedian in her twenties – not inexperienced but not yet fully supporting herself on her comedy performing. She is having an early career crisis. She’s no fool. Very sensible of her.

She thinks maybe she may be wrong giving up pretty-much everything in her private life to pursue her might-never-happen career.

She has little social life outside the one-night-stand Open Spot comedy circuit and (as she is from North West England) she is away from all the people she really knows and loves; she is alone on Planet Transient; she no longer has a boyfriend and she is struggling to make ends meet, working in a day job that bores and frustrates her. She does well, is playing lots of gigs but gets to bed late after her comedy work and has to get up very early to commute to her busy day job which allows no time to think about or arrange anything in her more-important-to-her comedy world.

This is the reality of one of the most glamorous jobs in Britain: being a comedian in your twenties.

“Perhaps I’m just wasting my time,” she said to me over lunch. (Obviously I was paying). “What if I never succeed and don’t get anywhere within sight of success? I’ll have wasted years of my life for no reason. I don’t even like London. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be. Maybe I should just go back up North, get a job where I can have a life, find someone to marry and settle down and have children and I know I’d be happy watching them grow up.”

I told her, if she did that, life would be less stressful but she would never know if she might have succeeded.

“If you try and fail, at least you will know what the outcome is.” I told her. “If you go home and have a happy life in tranquility with a husband and children – and that’s assuming you can find a good relationship – it will always be gnawing away inside you What would have happened if… You WANT to do comedy. It’s a vocation, an urge inside you…

“More than being a nurse or anything else. If you don’t play it out as far as you can, you will never know for certain what might have happened. On your deathbed, in sixty years, you will still be looking back on your life thinking What might have happened if… If you do not try, you have the certainty of not succeeding. If you do try, you risk failure – but you could succeed. It’s a toss-up between the certainty of failure and the possibility of success.”

If there is a safe option with an almost certain outcome and a riskier option, my advice is always to take the riskier option. Not knowing if you might have succeeded is infinitely worse than having failed. Taking the risk will at least bring closure.

Mind you, this may not be good advice because it is what I have done throughout my life. Once, in a rare job interview (I have usually not gone through application processes), the prospective employer sitting across the desk from me said:

“John, you seem to have an unfocussed CV.”

He took this as a negative factor; I have always taken it as a positive factor.

There is a Charles Dickens book (I can’t remember which – possibly David Copperfield) in which the central character, as a young man, stands outside a building and the narrative goes:

“I looked at the premises which, for the next 50 years, would be my work place.”

Times have changed, of course. But the ‘safe option’ can drive a truly creative person potty with frustration. You’ll end up walking through Tesco shooting random people with an AK-47. Figuratively if not in reality – and don’t be too sure it won’t be in reality. Uncertainty and adrenaline are attractive, provided you can eat and (in rainy Britain) have a roof over your head.

“But when will I know for certain if I have failed and when to give up?” my twenty-something chum asked me.

“Ah,” I said, “I haven’t got the foggiest. I am making this up as I go along.”

There are no right decisions.

When nerds in the mists of time first tried to program a computer which could play chess, they found it was impossible because the computer was unable to make the first move. The number of potential ramifications of the first move were and are virtually limitless. The computer would have sat there calculating potential first moves for longer than Ken Dodd’s career.

You can’t tell the outcome of any move early-on in chess. Nor in showbusiness. Nor in life. The butterfly theory comes into play.

No choice is simply between Path A and Path B because each of those paths then has literally hundreds of potential avenues which may lead off them. And every one of those hundreds of avenues each has itself hundreds of other sidetracks leading off them which may lead to a dead end or to a sparkling idyllic end result. It’s not a single path you choose; it’s a spider’s web spanning the rest of your life.

The way they eventually programmed computers to play chess was to limit the number of moves ahead which the computer took into consideration. In effect, the computer makes the best bet it can on the limited evidence available.

Choosing a ‘safe’ option may lead unexpectedly to awful consequences. Choosing a ‘risky’ option may lead unexpectedly to unforeseen opportunities which then lead on to a sparkling idyllic outcome which you had never thought of aiming for.

Comedy and successful creative careers generally have a terrifyingly high percentage of luck about them; they are about being in the right place at the right time. You can’t know where/when that place/time might be. So keeping as many options as possible open is the wisest move. Being in as many places at as many times as possible is the best option.

“Put yourself about a lot, love” is the best – indeed, only sensible – advice.

A risky proposition with an uncertain outcome may turn out to be a good idea further down the spider’s web of life.

So, if you are a girl in her twenties and I make a dodgy-sounding proposition to you, look on me kindly.

If you are an aspiring comedian, take my experienced opinion into consideration. You are almost certainly not as funny as you and your friends think you are. You will probably screw up your personal life and your mind by attempting to do comedy. And you will make no money out of it.

But I could be wrong.

To quote the often-misunderstood mantra of the great Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman in his essential-to-read book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING

He does not mean that people are equally ignorant. He means that no-one, however experienced, can know for certain the outcome of a creative work – or, for that matter, a creative career. Because movies, writing – and, yes, comedy – are creative arts, not a science.

The other factor I think you have to take into consideration is that, if you want to be a successful comedian, your mind is probably screwed-up anyway. One of the dullest of all mainstream quotes is:

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE MAD TO WORK HERE, BUT IT HELPS

To be a stand-up comedian, madness does not help.

It is essential.

All good comedians are barking mad and, when alone, howl at the moon and eat their own egos.

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Dangerous holidays in quirky places

The most dangerous place I was ever on holiday was Bogota in Colombia in 1983, at a time when the Medellin and Cali drug cartels were on the rise. At that time, the presumption in Bogota was that any white Westerner speaking English was carrying large amounts of cash to use in major drug deals.

About an hour after arriving in the city, I was crossing a central road junction when I heard a slight scuffle behind me. My companion, walking about four steps behind had been mugged by two men.

“They held two knives at my throat, so I gave them my wallet,” he told me, slightly surprised. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” It must have taken all of four seconds.

I remember, one Sunday morning, the two of us walking down a main street in the city – walking on the actual road, not the pavement, because it seemed safer to risk being hit by a car than walking close to narrow alleyways and shop doorways. It was less paranoia than common sense. A week or so later, in Lima, Peru, I got chatting to a young American in the bar of the Sheraton hotel.

“Yeah, Bogota is dangerous,” he agreed. He told me he visited the city quite often.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m in the import/export business,” he told me.

“Ah,” I replied.

I like interesting places but not dangerous ones.

Yesterday I went to the Destinations holiday exhibition at Earls Court in London, courtesy of the wonderful travel company Regent Holidays. In 1979, I went with them to Albania, largely because I had read the country had no motorised traffic and was dotted with pillbox bunkers in case they got invaded by unspecified other nations. “Dotted with pillboxes” turned out to be an understatement. Albania had concrete pillboxes like a pointillist painting has dots – and they were white curved things which could be clearly seen from a distance (surely not a good idea for a pill-box).

Albania in 1979 was a restful country – said to be the poorest in Europe – and, indeed, it had virtually no motorised vehicles. Occasionally you might spot a military truck or a Mercedes-Benz limo belonging to the Party; other than that it was horse-drawn carts and people walking. It was ruled by the admirably OTT Marxist-Leninist dictator Enver Hoxha who was said to always carry a pistol on his hip and once shot a member of his government over a dinner argument.

Now that’s my kinda ruler!

You can imagine Boris Johnson, given a tiny bit more power, doing that sort of thing.

Albania in 1979 was the most eccentric place I had been until I wisely went to North Korea with Regent Holidays in 1985. I recommend the country highly. When I went, it was ruled by The Great Leader (that was his official title) Kim il-sung about whom I’m saying nothing as I might want to go back there sometime. All I will say is that I went in 1985 and 1985 was a year late for North Korea’s definitive year. It was illegal for individuals to own a radio: the simplest effective piece of state control over people’s thoughts I have ever heard of.

Regent Holidays specialised then and specialise now in unusual destinations and, during the Cold War, that often meant extreme Communist regimes. I do lament the passing of widespread hardline Communism because you were always safe travelling to communist countries and right wing dictatorships. If anyone messed with foreign-currency-carrying tourists in those countries, the perpetrators tended to end up being thrown in a cell and the key thrown away or being shot in a football stadium. This tended to minimise casual street muggings.

I went to a lot of Communist countries during the Cold War because I was sadly too late for all the truly great right wing dictatorships. The only right wing dictatorship I did visit was Paraguay under General Stroessner. He is reported to have been ousted in 1989 because his military chiefs feared he would be succeeded either by his son Freddie, a cocaine addict, or by his son Gustavo, “who was loathed for being a homosexual and a pilot”. Bigotry apparently ran deep in Paraguay.

People have always told me I should go to Cuba and maybe I should, but I never felt it was extreme or eccentric enough. Fidel Castro always seemed to me a decent sort-of chap though, like comedian Ken Dodd, he tended to drastically over-run on his allotted stage time. He (I mean Fidel, not Doddy) ousted a particularly nasty dictator in Batista; this understandably annoyed the American Mafia, in particular Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky – and it is never a good idea to annoy powerful chaps like them. The modern-day equivalent might be a pub singer annoying Simon Cowell.

Having gained power, Fidel did approach US American President Eisenhower for aid and a meeting and was rebuffed. So it always seemed to me that Fidel was a decent bloke and the Americans brought on their own heads what followed. I mean, honestly, chaps in Langley getting CIA operatives to try to kill Fidel with an exploding cigar or to discredit him by trying to make his hair fall out… well, it’s the basis for a good comedy movie and I admire the lateral thinking, but leave the poor man alone.

I prefer holidays in quirky countries with eccentric dictators and there are precious few at the moment.

I did go to Turkmenistan in 1995 because President Saparmurat Niyazov sounded doolally. Sadly, he wasn’t, at that time, eccentric enough for my taste, though he did go slightly more impressively barking a little later: re-naming months of the year after members of his family and officially replacing the Turkmen word for “bread” with the name of his mother.

I like countries in a state of flux which will have changed utterly in 20 years time. Where is there to go now? Chechnya? Ingushetia? I’m not that mad. Somalia? You’re joking.

At Earls Court yesterday, the most interesting stand by far was Hinterland Travel, who were selling holidays to Afghanistan – their brochure was sub-titled “Discerning Adventures” which I don’t think anyone could dispute.

Around 1989, a friend suggested we go on holiday to Afghanistan because, she claimed,  “it’ll be safer in a couple of years or so”. It never did get safer. At the time she suggested it, I read that commercial jets were landing at Kabul Airport by making very tight spiral descents in an attempt to confuse any in-coming heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. There comes a point where “interesting” strays into “fucking dangerous” and, call me a wimp, but this was well over that line.

On 15th October this year, Hinterland Travel are offering a 14-day trip starting in Afghanistan costing £2,100. This adventure holiday for discerning travellers who are attracted to something slightly different from a Spanish beach holiday is called “The Retreat”. It starts in Kabul and aims to recreate the retreat of the British Army from Kabul to Jalalabad in 1842.

A note at the back of the leaflet says: “We do insist that you take out some form of insurance… principally health and repatriation cover while recognising that you will not be covered for Afghanistan re War and Terrorism.”

Suddenly Bogota in 1983 doesn’t seem so dangerous.

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