Eager eaters await the opening of an ‘all-you-can-eat’ Korean BBQ restaurant in New Malden…
I am interested in North Korea and in the content of dreams.
Last night, I went to New Malden, Surrey, on the outskirts of London, with comedy afficionado and occasional Leicester Comedy Festival judge Louisette Stodel. Each of us was buying the other a belated birthday meal. So, appropriately, given her family background, we went Dutch.
We went to New Malden (her suggestion) to eat because I have been to North Korea twice, it interests me and New Malden has the largest population of North Korean ex-pats in Europe. In April this year, reportedly, around 700 of the 25,000 Koreans living in New Malden were from North Korea. New Malden’s total population was said to be around 90,000.
Statistics seem a little vague. A 2015 report in the Independent newspaper claimed New Malden had a population of just under 29,000 and 10,000 were Korean, 700 being North Korean.
Whatever… I was hoping for a little bit of suburban exoticism in an outer London borough. Sadly, New Malden was a bit bland, although it did have a fair number of Korean restaurants, a fish shop selling Vietnamese ‘swimming blue crap’,
one restaurant with a printed and priced menu which also had a pink post-it note under plastic saying “PLEASE NOTE: PRICES MAY VARY”
and what appeared to be permanent Christmas lights on the lamp posts in the main street.
The local Methodist Church also appeared to be having a Korean Festival but, as the banner was in Korean script, I was a bit vague on the details..
However, over our sundry kimchee courses at the excellent Treestone BBQ restaurant, adjoining the ‘swimming blue crap’ fish shop, the subject of dreams came up…
An unusually reticent Louisette at the Korean
JOHN: So the other night, you had a dream about my garage?
LOUISETTE: I dreamt it was going to become an underground theatre.
JOHN: … and I was running it?
LOUISETTE: You were going to show me what you had turned your garage into, because you had had this brainwave and you had said: “Louisette, I am going to turn this into a performance space.”
JOHN: And did I?
LOUISETTE: I didn’t get any further. I think I woke up.
JOHN: …in a cold sweat of fear?
LOUISETTE: No, I just thought: Oh! I think it’s quite nice, the inside of that garage!
JOHN: You’ve never seen it, though.
LOUISETTE: No, I’ve never seen it in reality but, in my dream, it was very bright and there were glowing balloons and bulb lights and…
JOHN: Glowing balloons? Not just ordinary balloons.
LOUISETTE: Glowing balloons.I don’t know why I dreamt about the inside of your garage.
JOHN: Was the garage going to be for arty performance stuff or comedy?
LOUISETTE: I didn’t get that far enough in my dream.
JOHN: I think you’re going to have to go back into your dream and check.
LOUISETTE: I know what the outside of it looked like. It had a pair of rotten old wooden doors, not an up/down….
JOHN: But I have an up/down and over metal door…
LOUISETTE: I’m sure you do, but this was a dream. It was a dream!
JOHN: And did this come out of another dream that preceded it?
LOUISETTE: No. And I woke up in the morning and I thought: Oh, yes, John HAS got a garage.
JOHN: …but sadly lacking in glowing balloons…
(This dream seems as inconclusive as the population of New Malden. ANY OPINIONS GRATEFULLY RECEIVED on what the dream was about – especially the “glowing balloons” and the “pair of rotten old wooden doors”…)
On Thursday this week, Dan Kelly starts the Edinburgh Fringe ‘run’ of his show How I Came Third in the North Korean Marathon. So obviously I was interested and went to see his preview show at the Museum of Comedy in London.
And we talked…
JOHN: Your show is very well presented, very entertaining and funny but it’s difficult to find much about you online… You are a man of mystery.
DAN: You won’t find out much online.
JOHN: Have you performed on stage before?
DAN: Not particularly. I’ve done a few bits of improv just to experiment and see what it’s like to be on a stage.
The image used for Dan Kelly’s Madras Years show…
I went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018, the same year I went to North Korea, just to see what it was like to perform there and I did a 40-minute free show – a character show – for two weeks. Dan Kelly’s Madras Years.
I was a chat show host who had had a curry with every celebrity in the world and I would take audience suggestions and describe the meal I had with the celebrity they chose.
I know Edinburgh really well: I went to university there – I studied French and history. I would go to the Fringe every year and work in a coffee van in George Square. I just wondered what it was like to perform there and it was brilliant.
It was two weeks in a karaoke booth in the City Cafe which held 30 people. I worked out that, if I performed every day maybe I could get 15 people a day. After two weeks, I thought: How did I get away with that?
JOHN: You’re back again. So, after this, will there be a third show…?
DAN: I think the next show, if there is one, would be about my job and its travels – wandering round an Iranian supermarket looking for frozen lamb and so on.
JOHN: Your job is…?
DAN: I work as a data collector. I collect data on the cost of living around the world. Basically, I travel to countries all over the world and go round supermarkets with a dictaphone, recording the prices.
JOHN: You looked at prices in North Korea?
DAN: No. I went with colleagues – five of us – in 2018 as part of a larger group.
JOHN: An athletics group?
5 friends backed up by the Great Leader and the Dear Leader
DAN: No, the five of us were just friends.
There was no reason to go there work-wise but we thought: This is a place we don’t cover at work, so how can we get there?
The idea of an organised tour came up, but it didn’t quite appeal.
Then the marathon randomly appeared and that felt like a reasonable way of doing it.
DAN: With the marathon, the course is set and there are marshalls on the course, but you are free to just run. You have to keep to the route, but it was one of the few ways we could see a lot of Pyongyang on foot. It’s probably one of the easiest, safest places we’ve ever been.
JOHN: And the local spectators don’t speak English so they can’t talk to you.
DAN: The only dangerous thing was the amount of alcohol available. Almost encouraged. We were told: This is part of North Korean lifestyle! From the moment we got the train into North Korea from Dandong in China, first thing… trolley down the train… “Who’d like a beer?”
We had two Korean tour guides and two Western guides and it was: “We’re gonna be having a beer. You guys having a beer?”
It was a kinda nice welcome, but then it was, “Right, we’re gonna have ANOTHER beer” and “Who wants to try some local drink?” And the amount of drink available was endless. There didn’t seem to be any immediate danger except for the fact that, when everyone gets super-drunk, that’s when people start daring people and saying: “Let’s see what we can find! Let’s go to the floors that they told us not to go to.”
JOHN: They were presumably trying to loosen your tongues?
DAN: That is what we couldn’t work out.
Dan forging ahead on the streets of Pyongyang…
On the day of the marathon, we did a tour during the day and were given loads of beer with our dinner and there was the post-race euphoria and I remember clocking ourselves in the bar and thinking: This is where the dangerous stuff happens. Late at night. The guides are having a drink at a table over there and we’ve been allowed to drink as much as we want. It was 1.00am. This is dangerous. Don’t mess around!
JOHN: The hierarchy of the guides in North Korea is interesting.
DAN: As I say, we had two Western guides and two Korean guides. One of the Korean guides did not speak English and one did.
DAN: Someone said: “They have to have two so they can check on each other.” Whether that’s true or not, who knows?
JOHN:When I went in 2012, we had two North Korean guides – one young, one older; and a driver. Someone in our group spotted that the driver wore a Party lapel badge but the two guides didn’t, which presumably meant he was superior to the two guides. And the tendency was not to pay much attention to the driver because he allegedly didn’t speak or understand English. Allegedly. So you were more likely to be unguarded in what you said to each other in front of the driver. And there was some thought that the younger female guide was more senior that the older male guide. What was your first impression of Pyongyang?
“The skyline there was… interesting…”
DAN: The skyline there was… interesting… That was where you got that first hit: This is a bit different! It’s like if you went somewhere with indigenous plants. They look like plants, but I’ve never seen things like this before!
JOHN: I remember on BBC TV once, they read out the description of the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984 and showed that giant unused pyramid hotel. And it was pretty much the same as the description of the Ministry of Truth.
DAN: You went there in 1985.
JOHN: It was 1984 in 1985 and it was still 1984 in 2012.
The elephant in the room: It was 1984 in 1985 and it was still 1984 in 2012…
JOHN: Presumably it’s also a way of showing North Koreans how North Koreans are superior.
Dan makes his final run in the national stadium in Pyongyang
DAN: The North Korean professionals run their own race and, in 2018, they invited two or three African runners at, we guessed, the level at which the African runners would challenge but not beat the North Koreans.
The Africans were staying with us in the same hotel and told us they did it for a small fee: We can’t win, but we gotta run them close. Their personal best times were just outside the personal bests of the North Koreans running.
They did the same for the women’s race and we saw female African athletes being blocked-off from water stations where North Korean athletes were welcomed in. Little things like that.
JOHN: In your show, there is video footage of the race and you in North Korea…
DAN: The first day we were there, they told us, “We do a video for all tourist groups. So, if you see a guy with a camera, don’t be alarmed.”
After three days, they played us two minutes of some of the footage – the film ended up an hour in total – and they said: “This will be available on DVD (for around £20). It had North Korean music and looked like a film out of the 1960s. I thought: YES PLEASE!!!
So I got this DVD and then, when I showed the footage to people back in Britain, I saw their faces and thought: This feels like a story worth telling… So the Edinburgh show all came via that.
JOHN: And you took photos…
DAN: Yes. We were told, if we took any photos of statues, we were not allowed to cut off any part of the statue on the photo. Don’t quite know why. Our cameras, phones and lenses were scrutinised quite a lot.
JOHN: Any foreigners watching the race?
DAN: Not so much watching, but there were about 1,000 foreigners entered that year.
Dan Kelly (right, in light grey top) on the Pyongyang podium
You finish in the national stadium and they pack it out with thousands and, if you get in the top three, you get to stand on the podium.
I scraped into the top three and got a medal and a certificate and a little bouquet.
JOHN: …and a fascinating and very entertaining Edinburgh show.
DAN: I hope so.
JOHN: Where are your next work trips?
DAN: Rabat and Casablanca in Morocco. And then maybe Gabon.
JOHN: How were the shop prices in North Korea?
DAN: Who knows? In one of the restaurants we found a drinks cabinet with Western spirits in it and they had some prices on, so we took a photo of it. I think we only brought back four prices from North Korea.
JOHN: Maybe next time…
(THERE IS CURRENTLY A TRAILER FOR THE SHOW ON YOUTUBE…)
News reaches me from my friend Sandy in Italy that the national media have suddenly discovered an unhealthy interest in Kim Jong-un’s wristwatch.
Every time the North Korean leader is not seen for a few months or does not appear at an important Party event, there are rumours about his death and/or health. He has just reappeared after an absence of a month and the niche group of North Korea watchers in the West are split over whether he was:
a) dangerously ill
b) having an internal Party fight with someone or
c) just having a rest
Apparently one school of thought in Italy is that his most recent non-appearances were because he was either terribly ill or on a strict diet.
Sandy tells me:
“He has obviously lost a lot of weight. His clothes hang baggy and his round face is less round… The name ‘Slim Jong-un’ comes to mind.
“There were photos in an Italian newspaper on Friday with three close-ups of his wristwatch strap from 2019 and 2021… showing which hole he had it on to measure how much weight he has lost.
“He must,” she added, “think the Western press is totally barmy.”
And who is to gainsay him?
Giant statues of Kim Il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-il (right) in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang (Photograph: April 2012)
“Another theory being published,” Sandy tells me, “is that he only put on weight in the first place to resemble his father Kim Jong-il and his grandfather Kim Il-sung… and, now his authority is consolidated, he can go back to what he really looks like. A bit like method acting. Do you think he plays air guitar to Bohemian Rhapsody?”
This seems unlikely as, last Thursday, the New York Times quoted Kim saying that South Korean K-Pop music was “a vicious cancer corrupting young North Koreans’ attire, hairstyles, speeches, behaviors.” North Korean state media warned that, if left unchecked, it would make North Korea “crumble like a damp wall.”
The New York Times explains: “North Korean state propaganda has long described South Korea as a living hell crawling with beggars. (But) through the K-dramas, first smuggled on tapes and CDs, young North Koreans learned that, while they struggled to find enough food to eat during a famine, people in the South were going on diets to lose weight. South Korean entertainment is now smuggled on flash drives from China, stealing the hearts of young North Koreans who watch behind closed doors and draped windows.”
As well they might. Last December, North Korea enacted a new law with increased sentences to 5-15 years in labour camps for people who watch or possess South Korean entertainment. The previous maximum sentence was 5 years hard labour.
Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il was a great movie fan and appeared in the movie Team America.
(If any North Koreans should be reading this, can I point out I live in North Carolina in the USA and my real name is Margaret Smith.)
History is whatever people in the future are led to believe happened in the past.
History is what you are told it is in the People’s Paradise…
In North Korea, they are taught that the Korean War started when, unprovoked, the South Korean allies of the US invaded the North. The valiant forces of the North then pushed the US invaders back into the south where, with their backs to the sea, the defeated Americans pleaded for peace.
This does not explain why the current border is halfway up the peninsula nor why people alive at the time would have seen US and allied troops in the north of North Korea and Chinese troops pushing them back south. (In North Korean history, as taught in schools, the Chinese were never involved.)
So history is fluid. It is whatever you believe happened.
When I wrote an obituary of comedian Malcolm Hardee for the Independent newspaper in 2005, I started it by saying he “was arguably the greatest influence on British comedy over the last 25 years”. I did this partly because I thought it was arguably true but also because I figured that, in future, it would be picked up by other people writing about him and stated as fact rather than opinion.
And, occasionally, it has been. It was, after all, printed in a respected national newspaper.
History is whatever people in the future are led to believe happened in the past.
A couple of days ago, comedy icon Janey Godley hosted her Big Burns Supper on Facebook and YouTube, attracting a live digital audience of over 327,000 with viewers tuning in from Scotland and 50 countries across the world…
Janey Godley’s Big Burns Night line-up
Performers on the show included KT Tunstall, Donovan, Skerryvore, Camille O’Sullivan, Dougie MacLean, Tidelines, Manran, Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5, Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, Robert Softly Gale, Amy Conachan, Grant Dinwoodie, Ray Bradshaw and LOKA.
Yesterday, someone I know – an intelligent and well educated Englishman – told me he had seen Janey Godley’s Big Burns Supper and it had been a revelation to him.
He thought Burns Night was a celebration of the burning of the cakes.
For my reader in Guatemala…
The legendary cakes were allegedly burned by Alfred, a Saxon king in southern England, around 900 years before Robert Burns’ time. The legendary spider was encountered by Robert the Bruce around 500 years before Robert Burns’ time.
Life is but a dream.
And it is probable that neither event actually happened.
However, Janey Godley’s Big Burns Supper did happen and did get those verified viewing figures.
For educational reasons, a recording is, at the time of writing, still available on YouTube:
In the chat, I mention the Zircon satellite, which is incorrect. I think the satellite I should have mentioned was probably an ECHELON one.
I also mention the Pakistan Ambassador in Pyongyang and I think I mean the Indian Ambassador. It was a long time ago and I have a legendarily shit memory.
Anyway, we got through comedy, North Korea, Donald Trump, politics, dictators, propaganda, the US electoral system, the media and the Edinburgh Fringe, all in 45 minutes of fun, frivolity and totalitarian talk.
After viewing it, Sandra Smith – comedy industry uber-fan and observer of such details – commented: “Very active head action while speaking to the President.” She listed…
14 ear touches
I wish she hadn’t mentioned all those. I’m a bit touchy…
JOHN: Your show is called Coming Out Loud. Good title, because the audience knows what it’s going to get.
SAM: (LAUGHS) Dick jokes for an hour!
JOHN: Is there an elevator pitch for the show?
SAM: An openly gay comedian coming from a country where free speech and homosexuality is illegal… Expect dick jokes.
JOHN: Can you say free speech is illegal in Singapore?
SAM: No. In Singapore, I can’t say that free speech is illegal in Singapore. If you criticise the lack of free speech while you are here, you will be… erm… It’s a lovely irony.
JOHN: Is being gay totally illegal in Singapore?
SAM: Yes. It’s 100% illegal. The law itself is as vague as possible. It is basically the old-school English sodomy laws. It is illegal but…
JOHN: So how can you talk on stage about being gay if it’s illegal?
SAM: Because I am not yet popular or famous enough. On stage I always say I am gay. But, if they try to arrest me, I can say it is a character and then they would have to prove I’m gay which… well, good luck to them.
JOHN: So doing this chat with me could get you imprisoned…
SAM: It depends… They would need to prove I have done something untowards with another gentleman…
JOHN: You can say you are gay provided you’ve done nothing about it…?
SAM: Kinda. But, if you are on-stage saying it, they can still fine you or arrest you for homosexual propaganda or propagating that homosexuality is positive.
JOHN: Anyway, Coming Out Loud at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Why?
SAM: A lot of Edinburgh regulars recommended I should give it a bash – Martin Mor told me: “Come over, Sam, do the full run, go crazy and lose money.”
I guess I have to. It’s the Hajj. It’s the Mecca for comics: we all have to do it once in our life. But I don’t understand how people can do it for 10 or 20 years: a whole month!
JOHN: It’s addictive.
Sam is gearing up for Edinburgh with a tour of South East Asia
SAM: I am doing a whole run shows around Asia before it. I am gearing up to play outside my comfort zone.
JOHN: You started performing comedy in 2012…
SAM: Yes. The comedy scene is Asia is less than ten years old.
JOHN: I presume, if you are gay, you can’t play China?
SAM: I can, actually. I have played Brunei, if you can believe that!
SAM: It’s on hold. The law is technically not in effect but it has not been repealed. In very heavy Moslem areas like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, I have to be really careful. If I play there, I try to play in embassies like the British or American so I have that clemency of being on international soil.
JOHN: Remembering this is going online, is it just a problem with Islam?
SAM: No. Myanmar is heavily Buddhist and they set people on fire. In China, they put people in re-education camps. There are heavy beliefs in this part of the world: whether religious or atheistic.
There was a chief from the UN who came down to Myanmar to investigate the Rohingya crisis and the chief Buddhist monk of Myanmer called her a slut and threatened to have her raped… Remember this is a man of peace.
JOHN: How do your audiences react to a gay comic?
SAM: They have changed over time. They don’t mind hearing about it; but not too much. When I first started, it was a combination of me not knowing how to tailor the material for the audiences and the audiences not being ready to receive such information. But I have become a more competent performer with time and they have grown with time.
Sam See or Woody Harrelson? You decide.
JOHN: People get pigeonholed. Who do people compare you with?
SAM: I see myself as a much longer-form Joan Rivers, more into storytelling and less insults.
SAM: I have no idea why. He is not known for his stand-up comedy!
JOHN: Are there many gay comics in Singapore and surrounds?
SAM: No. I am the one openly gay comedian. There are two who are closeted and one bisexual, but she is more into poetry than stand-up.
JOHN: I presume no-one is admitting to being lesbian?
SAM: None of the locals. There are some expats who come to Asia, do stand-up and say: “I’m proud to be a lesbian.” But then they move on.
JOHN: Things must be getting better. You have been on TV in a weekly Singapore panel show OK Chope!
SAM: No-one had really done the panel show format in the region before. There are variety show formats but not the traditional UK-style panel show. Host, regular panellists and rotating guest panellists.
JOHN: Did it work?
SAM: It was a mess, because it was a topical news show where we were not allowed to talk about news because… well… it’s Singapore.
It was a one-hour show transmitted live, with a zero second delay.
JOHN: Jesus! A zero second delay?
SAM: Yes. I am not kidding.
JOHN: This was actually transmitted? It wasn’t just a pilot?
SAM: Yes, a full season… 7.30pm prime time, before the watershed.
JOHN: Double Jesus!
SAM: We all managed to drink in the afternoon before we shot it.
JOHN: Did the TV company get nervous after Episode One?
SAM: Oh yes. Every week, we would have one of the government censors watching us from a booth. He would give us a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.
JOHN: But, if it’s live, it’s too late…
SAM: Well, too late for the show but not too late to put us in jail.
JOHN: And it ended because…
SAM: We made fun of the then Prime Minister of Malaysia who had been accused of being a thief and we made jokes about it and somehow he watched that episode.
JOHN: And the result was…?
SAM: He called our Prime Minister who took us off the air.
JOHN: So the series ended before it was due to end.
SAM: It happened on the last episode at the end of the season.
JOHN: So was someone being intentionally provocative?
Sam See addresses his audience
SAM: No, that whole segment had actually cleared the censors. It was just that, at the time, Malaysia was having an election, so they needed a scapegoat and a way to look strong. If they can get the neighbouring country to formally apologise to them, it makes them look powerful and in control.
JOHN: Do you have a 5-year career plan that starts in Edinburgh and ends in Las Vegas?
SAM: Well, it starts in Edinburgh and then I am in talks with some folks over in the United States for representation.
JOHN: Presumably, like performers everywhere, you want to move to the US.
SAM: I don’t know. I think I would like to move to one of the other countries, but I would still make Singapore my home base because (a) it is my home and (b) the tax rates are better. (LAUGHS)
JOHN: I suspect Donald Trump thinks Singapore is somewhere in South America.
SAM: No. He knows where we are, because he started the North Korean treaties here.
JOHN:(LAUGHS) You should play North Korea!
SAM: You joke, but some of us have been thinking about it for a while. You just have to find an embassy that’s crazy enough to go along with the idea and just play it on embassy soil and don’t make jokes about the North Korean government or mention South Korea.
JOHN: Getting in might be a problem. And let’s not even fantasise about getting out. Singapore doesn’t have an embassy there, does it?
I first visited North Korea in 1986, when the Great Leader Kim Il-sung was still alive. He died in 1994.
I went again in April 2012, shortly after his son and successor the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il died (December 2011).
His son Kim Jong-un had succeeded him and was, at that time, being referred to as the Supreme Leader.
Below are the blogs I wrote in April 2012. I wrote them on paper while in North Korea and kept them in my inside jacket pocket at all times and only posted them once I was back in the UK. I am not that mad.
Wow, you’re still alive! I remember reading your stuff in the House of Hammer magazine when I was 11 or 12 years old. In fact, I was thinking about you when I watched The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue on YouTube a wee while ago. What did you write about it in your review? Something along the lines of: “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is no great horror film… But you certainly won’t sleep through it”?!
I used to write feature articles and occasionally reviews for film magazines, including House of Hammer, which was oddly published by Marvel Comics UK and had a wider horror scope than just movies by Hammer Films. It later transformed into House of Horror.
The e-mail I received was from an Ian Smith. He added: “Did you write a feature about David Cronenberg and his first four movies (Stereo, Crimes of the Future, Shivers and Rabid) in House of Hammer — somewhere around issues 13 – 16? If so, you also acquainted me with the World of Cronenberg for the first time — another feather in your cap! I seem to remember Mark Gatiss fondly waving a copy of House of Hammer on a BBC documentary he did about British horror movies.”
The Blood and Porridge website
So I thought Ian Smith might be worth talking to because, born in Northern Ireland and brought up both there and in Scotland, he currently lives in Sri Lanka and spent time in England, Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, Libya, Tunisia and, he says, “a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very often”. His website is titled Blood and Porridge.
So I talked to him via Skype in Sri Lanka, shortly after he had come back from a month working in Burma. He works as a teacher-trainer for people wanting to teach English as a foreign language.
When he finds the time, he writes short stories – horror, science fiction, fantasy and, he says, “even ‘mainstream’ ones set in humdrum wee Scottish and Irish towns and villages”. He has also published non-fiction on topics ranging from travel to Scottish amateur league football teams, from linguistic relativity to vampire movies. He has written under the pseudonyms Steve Cashell, Rab Foster, Eoin Henderson, Paul MacAlister, Jim Mountfield and, he says, “occasionally, under my own boring name”.
“So,” I said to him, “a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very often?”
“Yes,” he replied, “I spent two years working in North Korea with the British Council.”
“Which years?” I asked.
North Korea: People’s Paradise with a hint of a nuclear bomb
“2005-2007. That’s when they became a nuclear power. I remember I was with the British Ambassador that night and he was looking quite rattled and I told him: Well, you’ve joined that exclusive club. There can’t be many ambassadors who were in a country that suddenly went nuclear. It did not cheer him up.”
“Where were the bugs?” I asked. “The first time I was in North Korea we went, for some reason, to the Indian ambassador’s residence and he started off by just pointing silently to the radiogram, which was where the main bug was.”
“The only thing I noticed,” said Ian, “was that, when I picked up my telephone I would sometimes hear clicking noises. There was obviously someone listening in. I had freedom to go pretty much anywhere in Pyongyang, though occasionally I would spot someone behind me who was obviously keeping an eye on me.”
“Did you get out of Pyongyang much?” I asked.
“Just a little bit. I was generally restricted to the city but there are a couple of places you can go to which are on the official tourist trail. You can go about 30 miles down the road to the beach; and there’s a couple of mountains you can go to. Most of the time I was in Pyongyang and then they’d fly me over to Beijing every couple of months for a break.”
“Much-needed,” I suggested.
“Well,” said Ian, “I have to say I didn’t actually mind the job too much. I got on quite well with the North Korean people: they had a very nice, dark sense of humour.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised anyone risked showing any sense of humour in the People’s Paradise.
Ian Smith: a very well-travelled man
“They were very British, actually,” said Ian. “Always slagging each other off. I guess you probably need it in that environment. I enjoyed working there. You just had to not think too much about the wider picture.”
“What were you doing there?” I asked.
“I was training-up some teachers of English – giving them some training on the job.”
“Who is getting taught English in North Korea?” I asked.
“It’s quite a big thing,” said Ian. “At the time, Kim Jong-il had said he wanted everyone to speak English because it was the international language for business. Even in the more secluded countries, they now realise there’s a need for it.”
“It sounds dangerous,” I said. “North Koreans would actually be able to talk to foreigners.”
“Well, it’s a two-edged sword,” agreed Ian.
“What did you think when you were told you were going to North Korea?”
“I saw it advertised and applied. I had been in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years.”
“So anywhere was better?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t say that, but I felt it was definitely time for a bit of a change.”
“You read House of Hammer when you were about 11 or 12,” I said. “I always imagined I was writing for 16 or 17 year olds.”
Unusually cheerful-looking House of Hammer
“Well,” said Ian.”you couldn’t get into the cinema to see these films and your parents wouldn’t let you stay up late to see them on TV, so it was a kind of forbidden fruit thing. Someone said: The scariest horror films are the ones you are too young to get in to see. You just imagine them being much worse than they actually are.”
“And now you write yourself,” I said.
“I do a bit of writing. I write a lot of horror stories. I usually get two or three published each year. Sometimes hard copies, sometimes internet magazines. I’m not going to make any money out of it. It’s all moved online, but the problem is you get paid less now, if at all.”
“Why did you want to be a writer?”
“It’s just something that seemed obvious to me. Even when I was a kid, I was writing stuff in exercise jotters.”
“And now it’s all gone electronic,” I said.
“I think with a lot of those horror and fantasy writers from the 1970s and 1980s – their actual book market dried up and a lot of them started doing stuff on the internet and self-published – Tanith Lee, who died a few weeks ago published dozens and dozens of books in the last decade or so, but all electronic. Her fanbase would download it.”
“Your next story?” I asked.
One of the online markets for Ian’s work
“The Groove. It should be appearing soon in a Kindle magazine called Hellfire Crossroads. It’s a traditional revenge-from-beyond-the-grave story like the ones that used to be in those horror comics all those years ago. In it, the guy who has died is a sort of John Peel music obsessive who has this horrible, bitchy wife. The guy has left these requests for music to be played at his funeral but she ignores them and plays Angels by Robbie Williams. I just thought that, if something was guaranteed to bring me back from the grave in a fit of revenge, it would be that.”
“A sort of Hammer Horrory idea,” I said.
“I was reading,” said Ian, “an interview with the director Julian Richards, who made a film called Darklands in the late 1990s, which kick-started the new movement in British horror movies and he said, when he was a kid, the first film he did was on super-8 and he basically found the story in House of Hammer because they used to do these horror stories at the back – Van Helsing’s Terror Tales – he spent three years turning that into a film. So, in a way, House of Hammer was quite influential.”
I suspect Elf Lyons can pronounce French better than I can
Yesterday afternoon, I bumped into comedian/actress Elf Lyons at the Soho Theatre Bar. She had only recently returned from Australia and, next week, is off to Paris. I had just been to Shepherd’s Bush. I think I may have annoyed God at some point.
I have been to North Korea twice (in 1986 and 2012) but have only been to Paris once (in 2000). I think this was a good decision, if you can call it a decision.
I was fascinated by North Korea; I can’t say that Paris held the same attraction when I went there, although Montmartre was nice.
I was in Paris on 21st March – exactly 15 years ago.
I was staying with two French sisters.
One of the local schools was called Lycée Lino Ventura, after the Italian actor. This seemed slightly odd to me.
I said to one of the sisters:
“Maybe in Britain, we should name a school after Michael Caine.”
She mis-heard Michael Caine as my cocaine.
I managed to break my denture when I was there (don’t ask). Later, after having my denture repaired, I tried to thank the dental technician by saying: “Merci beaucoup,” but, because of the remnants of my Scots accent which makes me pronounce -oo- sounds idiosyncratically, it apparently sounded like I was saying to her Merci. Beau cul which means “Thankyou. Nice ass.”
It’s only flippin’ Noel Gallagher, ain’t it?
I am not one of life’s great linguists.
In the evening, we went to see the English band Oasis perform in concert at Le Bataclan Club. The rowdy audience had been indulging in English football chants, a large flag of St George was being waved and there were groups of very obvious Brits. At one point, Noel Gallagher said: “Is there anybody out there who isn’t from flippin’ England?”
That is my main memory of Paris.
That I heard Noel Gallagher unexpectedly use the word “flippin”.
This morning, I received an e-mail from that ever-efficient farter Mr Methane. It said:
John, What an awful term ‘sneaky peek’ is but just thought that this sneaky peek promo photo may be of use on your blog as a lead up to my New Year’s Day Message as you start building the tension and anticipation of your readers.
I’m off into an internet abyss from later today until 5th Jan and only contactable by mobile phone.
As I had absolutely zero idea what my blog was going to be today – and still do not as I write this – I told him I probably WOULD use his photo and, indeed, I would include a link to his New Year’s Day Message To The Nation. Here it is:
The link is ‘Private’ at the moment, but the video will go live at midnight on New Year’s Eve. I have no more idea than you what it contains, but I admire a good bit of promotion and Mr Methane is an expert at blowing his own trumpet.
Soldiers express their grief over the 2011 death of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il in the People’s Paradise of North Korea
Even more mysterious is how, in this day and age, Mr Methane can be off to an internet-free zone until 5th January (the late Malcolm Hardee’s birthday).
I can only think of a trip to North Korea, one of the few places on earth that has not experienced a wind of change since 1946.
Adam Taffler commented on my clothes (Photograph by Kirsty Burge)
… I also received a New Year message this morning from showman Adam Taffler – another great promoter – despite the fact this is only 28th December. Perhaps he, too, is off to North Korea? Certainly he, too, has a Malcolm Hardee link which I am not yet allowed to mention.
Adam wrote to me – clearly in an attempt to get quoted in my increasingly prestigious blog – saying that I am…
…the Samuel Pepys of the comedy underworld and innocent stirrer of the cauldron of comedy. In some ways you are like a follower of Boudica in an encroaching Roman era, one of a few who sees the wisdom of the ancients lacking on the telly box. An old school alchemist in a Hawaiian shirt who sees where the gold is.
Is it really Adam Taffler as a pervy Santa?
I think this translates as “You are an old fart who wears overly-elaborate shirts,” but I will take it as a compliment.
Adam also sent me a picture of (what he claims is) him as (I quote) “a pervy Santa”.
I have still not decided what to blog about today.
Life is an ongoing mystery.
But here is a teaser for the potential future movie Iron Sky: The Coming Race. I presume this impressive-looking film about Nazis riding dinosaurs will be, in some way, a sequel to the surprisingly good Finnish-Australian-German movie Iron Sky, which was about Nazis living on the dark side of the moon.
Happy 28th December.
The producers are currently crowdfunding the movie and, at the time of writing, have raised $422, 175 of their $500,000 target with eight days left to go.