Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

Political comic Joe Wells doesn’t know what he thinks, but The End is Nigh…

Comedian Joe Wells has just released two CDs – of his two latest Edinburgh Fringe shows – 10 Things I Hate about UKIP and I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative.

When I met him at the Soho Theatre Bar in London, he showed me his arm.

Tattooed on it were the words SO IT GOES.

This, alas, was not because he is an obsessive fan of this blog but because, like me, he is an admirer of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five in which the repeated refrain So it goes appears 106 times, usually linked to death, dying and mortality.

“Why Vonnegut?” I asked.

“I sort of,” Joe replied, “fell into doing a literature degree at Portsmouth University and, when you read people like Vonnegut and James Joyce, you think: Oh! I didn’t realise you could do that.”

“Are you an aspiring novelist?”

“Well, I wrote a book when I was basically a child. I wrote a book about OCD when I was 15.”

“A non-fiction book?”

“Yes, about growing up with OCD.”

“You went to Portsmouth University, but you addressed the Cambridge Union last year,” I said, “proposing a motion that The end is nigh.”

“They just saw something on YouTube and asked me,” said Joe.

“So when are you going to become Prime Minister?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’m going to be Prime Minister,” said Joe, “because I don’t think I know what I’m doing and I don’t think I know what I believe.”

“Surely that is a pre-requisite for the job?” I suggested.

“If you listen to the CDs,” said Joe, “a lot of it is about me not really knowing what I’m talking about. But, even though I don’t know what I think, the shows themselves have a viewpoint. Those two shows have quite clear messages.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“The 2016 show 10 Things I Hate about UKIP was not really about UKIP. It was saying that the only hope for the world is the political Left but the political Left are useless, so there is no hope. For a long time, I felt like a good person because I was Left Wing and that is one way to make yourself feel good about yourself. It was about having a crisis of belief.

“And the show this year – I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative – is spelled out quite explicitly at the end. It is about how we sneer at young people for being naive but what we need in the world is naive hopefulness and what is holding us back is older people thinking: We should just give up. It doesn’t matter. It really was about me feeling completely… It kind of came about when I was writing lots of bits of material that contradicted themselves politically and had very different tones.

“Some were saying: I think we should change things and make a better world. And other stuff was: Everything is fucked and it’s awful and we should give up. And then other bits were… not Right Wing but I suppose more critical of the Left. The premise of the show is it starts as a children’s story, getting older as I go through. So I can put the more hopeful bits at the beginning and, as I get older, I can more and more sell out and become more Right Wing.”

“You imply,” I said to Joe, “that you are deeply cynical and say you don’t know what you are talking about. So you really should be in politics proper.”

“I’m from a relatively middle class background. My father was a Probation Officer. I wasn’t growing up in poverty. But you go to the Cambridge Union and I’m aware of every bit of my accent and aware of everything I say differently and it’s a very elitist thing there; a kind of feeling you get: Oh, I don’t belong here at all.

“Why are you doing political shows if you’re not really that interested in being a politician?”

“I think my aims in comedy when I started were very different to what they are now. When I started, I was very much someone who wanted to bring about a Socialist world and I saw comedy as way to rally the troops.

“Now I don’t know. I feel very uncertain about where I stand on things. I suppose I want to make people feel less entrenched and make them question things. Often people say that and what they are actually saying is Be more sympathetic to very very Right Wing racists or whatever. I am NOT saying that. I don’t think that. I just don’t understand how people are not as confused and uncertain as I am. I think people can’t really be as sure about things.

“I think it is all about values. The reason why I’m still broadly on the Left is because my core values are that I think we should be nice to people, we should share things, forgive people if they make mistakes. But I think often the Left doesn’t value competence.”

“This is going to be quoted,” I said. “Is that OK?”

“Yeah. Yeah. The values of what the Left are trying to achieve I really support. I want a world where people share things and we don’t have people who are homeless. But often the Left doesn’t seem to think through how these things are going to work. The practicalities of how to bring it about.”

“So are you,” I asked, “now stuck in a comedic cul-de-sac where you have to ‘do’ politics? You can’t suddenly start doing surreal comedy routines about giraffes mating with albatrosses.”

“I think my next show may be going away from politics completely.”

“Towards?” I asked.

“I found out recently that, when I was a teenager, there was talk about me being autistic and I’m looking into that more. I didn’t know about it. So I’m doing a show about that in 2019. I am going to take a year off from the Edinburgh Fringe so I can be lazy about writing it. I want to write a good show about being an outsider.

Touch and Go Joe, about OCD, written by Joe when he was 15

“As a teenager, I loved Marilyn Manson in a very obsessive way. I think I saw him as an outsider and that’s what I felt like at school. Growing up, I had OCD and I was a very big music fan but the OCD made it very difficult for me to go to CD shops and flick through all the CDs.”

“Why?” I asked.

“My OCD was around tapping things in sequence. So, if I touched a new thing, I had to tap it in a long sequence. It’s hard to flip through CDs because you touch loads of things. There is a complicated thought process behind it, but it made sense to the OCD.”

“Have you embraced MP4s?” I asked.

“I have got Spotify because it makes train journeys go easier, but I just like CDs. I like having the sleeve notes and the pictures…”

“Have you had interest in your comedy work from TV and radio?”

“I’ve done bits and pieces. I did some writing for Have I Got News For You. A producer came to see my show last year. and liked it But I find writing jokey-jokes for other people sometimes a bit tricky. My own stuff I always start with an opinion on something and work up from that and that doesn’t always lead on to neat jokes.”

“And you opened for Frankie Boyle,” I said.

“Yes, he contacted me through Twitter. I think he heard me on a podcast. I did a couple of shows with him at Leicester Square two years ago and then last year a longer run at the Pleasance in Islington and a few dates in the Spring. It means a lot when it’s a comic that you like.”

“Have you a 5-year game plan?” I asked.

“No,” said Joe. “Not at all.”

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The UK’s Funniest blogger?

The UK’s Funniest Blogger trophy

The potential UK’s Funniest Blog trophy

Yesterday, So It Goes – the daily blog you are reading, in case you have forgotten or stumbled on this – was shortlisted in a vote for the UK’s Funniest Blog.

This took me a little by surprise because, although I have myself been known to call this a “comedy blog” for publicity purposes, I have always seen it as part-humorous, part melancholic and part-nihilistic.

Clearly no-one has actually read my blogs about suicide, psychosis, crime, murder and the general mental instability of comedians and how corrupt the British police are…

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel

So It Goes: Tralfamadorians said it first

I think there might be a slight hint in the title SO IT GOES that this may not be a laugh-a-minute blog. The name, of course, comes from the repeated refrain in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five. It is what the inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore say whenever someone dies.

The full title of Vonnegut’s novel is: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a Fourth Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod (and Smoking Too Much), Who as an American Infantry Scout Hors De Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Firebombing of Dresden, Germany, the Florence of the Elbe, a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where The Flying Saucers Come From.

On the opening page, before the novel starts, there is a quote:

The cattle are lowing
The Baby awakes
But the little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007.

So it goes.

Obviously.

I read Slaughterhouse-Five before 1991, when I was hit by a truck.

I Stole Freddie Mercy’sBirthday Cake

Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography, which I wrote for and with him in 1995

Since 1991, I have not been able to read books. I can write them, but I can’t read them.

That’s funny.

Peculiar.

Maybe the nomination is for Funny Peculiar rather than for Funny Ha-Ha.

Other nominees in the Funniest Blog shortlist this year include genuine comedians Janey Godley and Tony Cowards.

Personally, I have voted for Janey and I recommend you do too.

Nothing against the talented Tony. But Janey is my chum and The Scotsman correctly called her “Scotland’s funniest woman,” while the Daily Telegraph called her “the most outspoken female stand-up in Britain” and Billy Connolly simply said: “She is a fucking great comedian”.

Who am I to contradict Billy Connolly on matters of Funny Ha-Ha?

You can vote for Janey HERE.

Voting closes on Monday 23rd March 2015.

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So It Goes – a blog, a chat show, a song and now a magazine – but not mine

Never knowingly under-promoted: my upcoming Fringe show

Never to be under-promoted: my Edinburgh Fringe chat show

I started this So It Goes blog in an occasional way in May 2010.

In August this year, a daily chat show version of the blog will be staged during the final week of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Someone Tweeted me yesterday, saying: “Dude. You need to sue them…” because he had seen copies of a new magazine called So It Goes billing itself as “A biannual arts and culture journal”.

Nothing to do with me.

So It Goes is simply a common phrase and I imagined they, like I, just nicked the phrase from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

I will re-phrase that, I imagined we both used the title in homage to the greater glory of Kurt Vonnegut.

The cover of the new So It Goes magazine

The cover of the new So It Goes magazine

And that is, indeed, the case. In an interview about the new magazine, editor James Wright says: “The phrase comes from one of my and my co-editor’s favourite books Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The author uses the phrase to illustrate the passage of time, death and the inexplicable. To us, the words speak to life’s inherent unpredictability. Vonnegut often used the phrase for comic relief, and considering the obstacles involved in publishing this issue, it seemed rather apposite!”

So It Goes sounds and looks like a good magazine. I have not seen a printed copy yet, but I wish it well.

So It Goes was also the title of a weekly Granada TV music show 1976-1977; I first worked for Granada in 1978. The show was presented by Tony Wilson and included the first ever TV appearance of The Sex Pistols. It was taken off air after what was considered “an expletive-strewn appearance by Iggy Pop”. As far as I am aware, the ever-literate Tony also named his show after the Slaughterhouse-Five phrase.

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about Dresden

In Slaughterhouse-Five, which centres on the destruction of Dresden in the Second World War, the novel’s hero Billy Pilgrim spends time on the planet Tralfamadore and he writes:

“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is So it goes.”

In 1976, Nick Lowe released a song called So it Goes, but the refrain…

So it goes…but where it’s going, no-one knows

… does not sound like the Kurt Vonnegut use of the phrase… more like the general everyday use… but it will do. It will do.

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The line between being world famous and being forgotten is thin and random

Sir Keith Park defended London

I had never heard of Sir Keith Park, who saved London

Like most people, I know a lot about what happened during my parent’s generation’s time.

So I grew up knowing a lot about the Second World War.

But, until I visited the RAF Museum in Hendon yesterday, I had never heard of Sir Keith Park.

A New Zealander, he was in operational command of the defence of London during the Battle of Britain in World War Two and, later in the War, in charge of the defence of Malta.

I had, of course, heard of British national hero ‘Bomber’ Harris, who is now partially discredited because of his bombing of Dresden but I had never heard of Sir Keith Park.

The dividing line between being remembered and being forgotten by history is thin and random.

When I woke up this morning, the Google.com homepage was celebrating the 197th birthday of Augusta Ada King, countess of Lovelace – aka Ada Lovelance.

I had never heard of her but, in 1843, she first published the idea of inputting punch cards to Charles Babbage’s ‘Analytic Machine’.

Charles Babbage, of whom I had heard, designed his Analytic Machine purely as a powerful calculator but is remembered as the father of computing. The less-remembered (and, by me, totally unknown) Ada is, according to Google, considered by some “the world’s first computer programmer, as well as a visionary of the computing age”.

The dividing line between being remembered and being forgotten by history really is random.

John Logie Baird and his 'Televisor' c 1925

John Logie Baird and his misguided ‘Televisor’ in around 1925

Everyone knows John Logie Baird invented television.

Except, of course, he did not. He had the wrong system.

My favourite author, George Eliot, is usually credited with the quote “It is never too late to be what you might have been” and it sounds, indeed, very much like her. But it seems to have actually been an urban myth type variation on a quote from the novel John Halifax, Gentleman by the almost totally forgotten Dinah Mulock Craik.

The original quote is the unmemorable: “You mean, Mr. Halifax, what I might have been. Now it is too late.”

That has pretty much the opposite meaning to the more famous remembered quote “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” which seems to have been conjured out of nowhere by generations of misquotation.

Who is remembered and why and for what is fairly random.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings

Sic transit gloria. 

Ars longa vita brevis.

They all seem to cover it.

But I, perhaps not surprisingly, prefer to remember a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel set partly in the post-War US, partly during the bombing of Dresden by Bomber Harris’ planes and partly on the fictional planet of Tralfamadore:

“Now when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘so it goes’.”

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Deaths in the North African desert…. Deaths in Dresden…. So it goes.

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

I still cry every time I see the movie of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. He was a POW in Dresden, when it was bombed.

The name of this blog – So It Goes – is taken from his book.

When I was in my early teens – maybe even when I was ten – I read a description of the air raid on Dresden  in 1945 and the firestorm which was intentionally created to destroy it.

The one detail that stuck in my mind when I read it was that, when the second wave of British bombers crossed the English Channel, they could see a glow on the skyline and that was Dresden burning far, far, far away in the far east of Germany.

When I saw the BBC’s then-banned documentary The War Game, I remember the fact being stated that most of our knowledge of the effects of a nuclear attack on an urban area comes not from Hiroshima and Nagasaki but from the bombing of Dresden and Hamburg and the firestorms created by the creative use of  ‘conventional’ bombing.

At the time, in March 1945, in the closing months of the War, the Germans estimated around 200,000 people had died in the Dresden bombing. Some later guesstimates put the possible figure (no-one can ever know) at nearer 500,000; the RAF figures of the time are fantasies; the firestorm destroyed 15 square miles of the city centre.

Yesterday at the Soho Theatre in London, I saw 92-year-old former rifleman Victor Gregg chatting about his life.

He grew up in the 1920s in London’s King’s Cross where, pretty much, all the young boys were in street gangs because, with entire families living in one room, you had to go out onto the streets during the day; staying in your home was no option.

When he was older and the gangs were more mature, he hung around Soho, where gangs from North and East and South London had cafés in various streets and, if there were any territorial disputes, you resorted to cut-throat razors.

One day in 1937, when he was out of work, aged 18, he was standing at Horse Guards, watching the guards change and an older man asked if he wanted to come with him and have a free tea and a bun. He said yes. The man took him to Great Scotland Yard and, within half an hour, someone had chatted to him, a doctor had felt his testicles and he had one shilling in his hand and a railway pass for the next day to a military depot.

“That’s how they got people into the Army in those days,” Victor shrugged.

He fought in the front line at the Battle of El Alamein in the North African desert, including the Snipe Action where, according to Victor, 500 men with 19 six-pounder anti-tank guns were surrounded by and held off massed attacks by German and Italian armoured divisions and destroyed “about a third of Rommel’s tanks”. The British commanding officer won the Victoria Cross.

Victor was part of Popski’s Private Army when he was 21, drove the injured for the Long Range Desert Group and the death of his friend Frankie 70 years ago could still bring tears to his eyes.

Frankie was killed in a truck in the North African desert, hit by enemy shelling.

When Victor got to him, the truck was burnt out but Frankie’s body was still sitting there at the wheel of the vehicle.

When Victor pulled Frankie out, the bottom half of the body fell off onto the ground.

At Arnhem (subject of A Bridge Too Far), Victor was dropped by parachute on the second day which meant that he was landing on the bodies of the first day’s paratroopers. The 600 men he was with were soon reduced to 80 and, with their supplies mistakenly dropped 10 km away (roughly the distance from Soho to Wimbledon in London) they were hungry for most of their nine days there and praying it would rain so they could drink water from the puddles.

After being captured at Arnhem, he ended up on Tuesday 13th February in the centre of Dresden in a building with a glass dome roof. He had been sentenced to death for sabotage after trying to escape from a POW camp and burning down a factory.

When they heard the sirens and even when they heard the bombers overhead, they did not think Dresden could be the target. They thought, under their glass dome, that it must be another one of the almost nightly air raids on Leipzig.

The first incendiaries were about two or three feet long and came through the glass dome, showering people underneath with sharp glass shards. They had something like a liquid glue in them that stuck to people’s skin so people who already had glass sticking into them were also burning alive.

“And if you ran out of the building,” Victor explained, “it was like running out into an oven at Gas Mark 7; everything was on fire.”

When the second wave of bombers came – the bombers I later read about as a teenager – the ones which, coming over the English Channel saw Dresden burning on the distant skyline…

When the second wave of bombers came, they were dropping bigger incendiaries and 4,000 pound and 8,000 pound bombs.

To create a firestorm, you drop the secondary incendiaries and bombs into the fires caused by the first wave of attacks.

“Dresden was full of old people,” Victor said. “Old people, women, children, sick people, babies; there wasn’t a soldier in sight.”

And then the winds came. The fires burnt so intensely, the oxygen was being eaten-up so quickly at the heart of the firestorm, that air had to be sucked in to prevent the creation of a vacuum, so hundred-mile-an-hour winds blew along at ground level, sucking people and rubble into the centre of the firestorm.

“You had to try to walk into the wind,” Victor said. “or you’d end like the people who were being dragged up into the air or sucked into the fire. People who were in shelters roasted to death.”

He reckons he survived through pure luck and because he was wearing wooden clogs. The water was steaming, parts of the River Elbe were on fire, the pavements melted leather shoes and feet.

“There was an air raid shelter near the railway station,” Victor said, “There were 5,000 people in it. The doors had been locked to avoid over-crowding. When we opened the doors, there was just glue left inside. Everyone had been turned to jelly. There were no bodies. An occasional bone here and there. But it just looked like it was full of glue.

“The Yanks came on the second day.  By then, they had fighter planes which could fly all that way into Germany. They strafed the women and children as they ran on the ground. I’ve seen it written that it never happened, but I saw the fighters doing it.”

After the War, he says, “I was OK for about 18 months, then I became a psychopath. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel any responsibility to anything or anyone. It took me about 30 years to get over what I saw in Dresden.”

He wrote his autobiography Rifleman with Rick Stroud.

He had a look of faraway resignation in his eyes when he talked, except when he told the story about the death of his friend Frankie in the North African desert, seventy years ago, when the bottom half of the body had fallen onto the ground as he lifted it from the burnt-out truck.

Then he had tears in his eyes.

The death of one person can matter.

So it goes.

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