Tag Archives: nostalgia

My surprising top ten blogs of last year

(Photograph by Ariane Sherine)

I started this blog in 2010 and it is usually referred-to as a “comedy blog” but, just out of quirky interest, here is a list of what were my Top Ten blogs in terms of hits last year.

This list is obviously more a reflection of who my readers are than anything else…

1) Where the Kray Twins gangster film “Legend” got it all so very badly wrong

2) The practicalities of putting your head in a gas oven: my 2nd suicide attempt

3) Krayzy Days – Why London gangster Ronnie Kray really shot George Cornell inside the Blind Beggar pub in 1966

4) What the REAL Swinging Sixties were like – gangsters and police corruption

5) Hello to the Bye Bye Girls – Ruby Wax’s offspring – two Siblings on the Fringe

6) Creating a Legend – The Krays and the killing of ‘Mad Axeman’ Frank Mitchell

7) What it is like to be on the jury of a murder case at the Old Bailey in London

8) Why Chris Tarrant’s TV show OTT was taken off air – a naked Malcolm Hardee

9) Edinburgh Fringe, Day 12: How to destroy a comedy career & other news

10) The death of an Italian archaeologist who knew so many 20th century secrets

1 Comment

Filed under Blogs, Crime, Nostalgia

When I came home yesterday at dusk… Tomorrow & tomorrow & tomorrow…

Durer_NurnbergRuins

I live on the outer edge of London in what is called a Close but is actually a square, with buildings on three sides and, on the other, the back gardens of houses in another street.

When I came home yesterday at dusk, the buildings on the three sides were half demolished, the roofs non-existent, the walls and innards had been broken down to half or more or less than their old height, the bricks and plaster destroyed or exposed and everything was covered with that light white dust of demolition.

When I had walked up the nearby street to my home, there had been red double-decker buses and waste bins and people walking around like it was hundreds of years ago and you were living in and walking through a world you had only known previously from old, faded images. It was dusk and all the 2-dimensional detailing and colours and sounds were there in 3-D reality.

Then I was standing on the Blackford Hill, looking north towards the Firth of Forth and Fife, with the waters stretched out flat and wet before me, the little black island of the Castle Rock sticking out of the water on the left and the larger green island of Arthur’s Seat sticking up out of the water to its right. And, way down, in the waters between them, were the underwater streets and passageways and stone buildings of what used to be Edinburgh. Just dark stone passageways and alleyways in a dark underwater maze now, with light marine growths on the dark stone walls and fish swimming along and between and inside the empty rooms of all the old buildings.

Dreams are strange.

It is very very rare that I remember mine.

Perhaps once a year; maybe twice.

I wish I remembered them more often.

But all the above was not a dream I had last night.

It was yesterday at dusk and I was awake and the images were in my mind.

MyEye_CUT

 

1 Comment

Filed under Death, Dreams, Nostalgia

Comedy legend John Dowie: changed by Spike Milligan’s Bed-Sitting Room

John Dowie talked to me near Euston, London

John Dowie talked to me near Euston, London

John Dowie is difficult to describe. Wikipedia’s current attempt is: “a British comedian, musician and writer. He began performing stand-up comedy in 1969.”

His own website describes him as: “Not working. Not writing. Not performing. Not Twittering. Not on Facebook. Not on Radio. Not on TV. Not doing game shows, chat shows, list shows, grumpy-old whatever shows. Not doing quiz shows. Not doing adverts. Not doing voice-overs for insurance companies/banks/supermarkets/dodgy yogurts.”

The synopsis of his up-coming autobiography starts: “If you’re thinking of becoming a stand-up comedian (and who isn’t?) then here’s some advice: don’t start doing it in 1972. I did, and it was a mistake.”

I know John Dowie because he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the 2003 anthology of comedians’ (often dark) short stories which I edited with the late Malcolm Hardee.

The book that was not suspended

A foul mouth, a foul mind and a bomb

John’s was the story of a Northern comedian who has a foul mouth, a foul mind and a bomb. The Daily Mirror called it: “a wrist-slashingly brutal account of a Bernard Manning-esque comic who plans blood-thirsty revenge. Disturbing? Very.” The Chortle website called it a “breathlessly entertaining yarn”.

Now he is crowdfunding his new book The Freewheeling John Dowie.

“How long are you crowdfunding for?” I asked him.

“They reckon the average book takes about six weeks or two months.”

“Have you started writing it?”

“I’ve already written it!”

“So the crowdfunding is just for the physical creation of it?”

“Yes, you have to reach a funding target for the printing process to begin.”

“So what have you been doing,” I asked, “since the triumph that was Sit-Down Comedy?”

“I have been riding my bicycle.”

“Where?”

“France, Holland, Spain, Italy, Ireland which is horrible, Wales, up and down England.”

“I like Ireland,” I said.

“Bad roads,” said John Dowie.

“And you are publishing your autobiography by crowdfunding…?”

The Freewheeling John Dowie, crowdfunder

The Freewheeling John Dowie, crowdfunding and bicycling

“Well, it’s not actually an autobiography,” John corrected me. “It’s like an autobiography, but with the boring bits cut out. There is no stuff like Birmingham is an industrial town in the heart of the Midlands. It’s got autobiographical elements. But, if you are a nobody such as I, then the only way you can tell a story about yourself is if it is a story that stands in its own right.”

“So how do you want The Freewheeling John Dowie described?” I asked. “A bicycling autobiography?”

“Yeah,” said John. “Well, if you ride a bike and you’re in a quiet piece of the world, what do you do? Your mind is free to wander and, as it wanders, you find yourself going from place to place in your mind that you were not expecting to go.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you decide to write your autobiography now?”

“I’m 65 and I’ve been retired for 15 years,” explained John. “And, if you’re 65, you’re fucked. So I thought: If I’m fucked, I’d better spend my time working because I’m of more use as a fucked-up performer than I am as a fucked-up retiree.”

“You were born in 1950?” I asked.

“Yes. Just in time to miss Elvis Presley and just in time to get the Beatles.”

“Did you approach a ‘proper’ publisher for the book?” I asked.

“No… Well, I think Unbound are more proper than publishers, because they care about the things they make. A friend of mine has a client who’s a comedian who went to a voice-over studio to record her book and was regaled by the engineers with all the comedians who came in to read the books they ‘wrote’ but had never even read yet – and finding mistakes in their own books – Ooh! My mother isn’t called Dorothy! Those are books done by ‘proper’ publishers.”

John Dowie - a living legend from the early alternate days

John Dowie – a living legend from the early alternate days

“Is there what they call a ‘narrative arc’ in your cycling autobiography?” I asked.

“Well, it begins and ends with a Spike Milligan story.”

“I met him once,” I said. “I think he must have got out of the wrong side of the bed that day.”

“I think,” John said, “that he got more crotchety as he got older. When I met him, he was very decent to me. I was hanging around backstage after one of his shows. He was touring a play which he wrote with John AntrobusThe Bed-Sitting Room. People talk about taking LSD for the first time and how it changed their life. Watching The Bed-Sitting Room changed my life. It was like a door had opened.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I had not experienced anything like it before. Live comedy. I was 15 or 16.”

“So you didn’t know what you wanted to be?”

“No.”

“And you decided to be Spike Milligan?”

“Yeah. That’s more or less it, yeah. I became Spike Milligan for a period. Apart from the talented bits, obviously.”

“What happened when you stopped being Spike Milligan?”

“I got my friends back.”

“Why? Because you were rude as Spike Milligan?”

“No. Just not funny.”

An early John Dowie album by the young tearaway

Naked Noolies and I Don’t Want To Be Your Amputee

“And then, I said, “you became one of the living legends of the original Alternative Comedy circuit.”

“Well,” said John, “I’m living. That’s halfway there.”

“But you are,” I said, “one of the originators of Alternative Comedy.”

“I don’t think so,” said John. “I don’t think I’m one of them and it’s not as if it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been there. I was coincidental more than anything. It wasn’t as if anybody saw me and thought: Oh, let’s start a movement. I considered myself to be in the same field as Ivor Cutler and Ron Geesin.”

“Wow!” I said. “Ron Geesin! I had forgotten him!”

“Yes,” said John. “He was great. He was a John Peel discovery. Ron played Mother’s Club in Birmingham where John Peel’s Birmingham audience used to go religiously to see the acts John Peel played on the radio. Ron Geesin came on and did his first number on the piano and the place went fucking barmy and Ron Geesin said to the audience: Listen, nobody is THAT good.”

Factory Records’ first release: FAC-2

AOK Factory Records’ first release: FAC-2

At this point, farteur Mr Methane, who was sitting with us, piped up: “Weren’t you involved with Tony Wilson years ago?” he asked. “On Factory Records.”

“Yeah,” said John. “The first one. The first Factory Records release. FAC- 2… FAC- 1 was the poster. I was on the same record as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and the Durutti Column. It was a double EP.”

“Ah!” I said.

Then he said to me: “It’s all very good if you know everything about comedy, John, but, if you don’t know about pop music…”

“Why should people crowdfund your autobiography?” I asked.

“Because I’m fuckin’ fantastic,” he replied.

I tend to agree.

If you want to crowd fund the book: https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-freewheeling-john-dowie

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Comedy, Nostalgia

Memories of being a table dancer, a war between strippers and a Yiddish theatre

This morning, I received an e-mail from this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith.

She lives on a boat in Vancouver. She used to be a stripper. Her sister is a priest.

This is what her e-mail said…


The ever interesting Anna Smith

The ever interesting Anna Smith

GOD… It’s taking me forever to get Skype.

I tried to install it myself.

Maybe I have already… It says it’s not working at the moment or something equally annoying.

My priestly sister said she could help me. She is super competent. She can Skype, do funerals and drive like a Mexican. She said it would take two seconds, but sometimes it takes me two weeks to find her. She is going to Colombia next week on a three week pilgrimage walking uphill following some nun around the jungle.

I go on a pilgrimage every second day, to get off of my boat. Yesterday, I went to the drop-in center for street girls to get some technical support from a young lady named Kay.

But Kay was busy leading a tarot card session for a small group of older women who needed cheering up. Kay retrieved the main fortune-telling card and read aloud the message: “You will go somewhere you have never been before, somewhere no-one else has been either.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s gonna be a hard place to find.” They laughed.

I had a coffee and chatted with the receptionist who was a French lady from Quebec. Somehow we got on the subject of strippers. I told her that the only club I worked at in Quebec was Le Folichon, which was the best strip club in Canada. She gasped and said: “I don’t believe it! – I used to work there too!”

Le Folichon club in Quebec

Some shared memories of Le Folichon club in Quebec, Canada

I told her: “Wow! – That was a good club…  It was so good that they fired me on the third day because I wasn’t fancy enough… It was the only time I was ever sent home… It was at Hallowe’en and they had some great acts. The star was a guy who entered the stage like a wicked witch, a drag witch. He had a broom and a cauldron with dry ice. He made all these scary gestures and explosions till the stage was blanketed in fog. When the fog cleared there was a four poster bed and Sleeping Beauty was in it. And he was Sleeping Beauty and he woke up!”

Chantelle, the French lady, sighed: “Yes, that was a nice club all right – all pink and white… and it had lace curtains. That place had class. I was a house girl there for years. I was the owner’s girlfriend.”

“Wow!” I said. ” That’s incredible.”

“Not really,” Chantelle told me. “He dated all the girls who worked there.”

“Oh,” I said, “maybe that’s why he sent me home…”

“He was a nice guy though,” she told me. “When he went to Europe he used to send me jewelry and roses every day. He was like that. His father used to be the mayor of Quebec a long time ago. His dad had wanted him to be a lawyer, but he had wanted something different… And then I was one of the first table dancers to work in Ontario. They sent a group of us out.”

“Oh! We hated the French girls,” I told her. “They ruined the business. Undercutting everyone.”

“For sure,” Chantelle agreed. “The English dancers didn’t like it. There was a war on.”

“I know,” I said. “I was in it!”

Anna Smith, Chicago Virgin

Anna Smith remembers when girls kicked out the light bulbs

“The English girls didn’t know how to table dance,” she continued. “They just ripped their clothes off on the first song. You have to drag it out to make your money.”

“Table dancing destroyed stripping,” I said. “I hated it.”

“You did it then?”

“Only when there was no choice. When it first started, before they started doing blow jobs in the corners. Then the girls used to kick out the light bulbs.”

I waited around the reception area, sipping my coffee and, when the place closed, I walked with Chantelle for  a few blocks.

“I can’t believe you were at the Folichon,” she told me. “You really made my day.”

Then I went into a community cafeteria where it is pretty rough but they serve really good food. My tray was loaded with what seemed like an impossibly huge pile of vegan stuff. I found a small round table to sit at. A volunteer helped an elderly lady to get from her walker to a chair, asking: “Is it OK if she sits here?”

Anna in the dressing room at The Flamingo Motor Inn on August 3 2014 Ian Breslin generously allowed me to dance to his music in order to raise money for children of dancers orphaned by cancer

Anna in the dressing room at The Flamingo Motor Inn, Vancouver, on 3rd August 2014

“Sure,” I said, putting away my phone and rearranging my bags a bit.

The other lady only had a soup and a cookie.

I started into my meal and, after a while, we started talking. She looked elderly and odd, with frizzy black hair and theatrically painted eyeliner. She started talking about her walker. She had only started using it recently. She had had a fall in September and another before Christmas.

“It’s strange that I fell,” she told me. “I’m normally pretty limber.”

She gave a little laugh, which made her pretty for a moment.

I don’t remember what I said next but, somehow, it came up that she too had been a dancer.

“What kind of a dancer?” I asked.

“A stripper,” she said quietly.

“Really?”

“Well, I was a ballet dancer and I learned jazz.”

“That’s crazy,” I said. “You’re the second stripper I’ve met in the last hour. Did you work in Toronto?”

“Yes. At Starvin’ Marvin’s,” she said.

Starving’ Marvin’s club in Toronto

“Places she’d danced & girls she knew. She was 72 years old.”

“That’s unbelievable,” I told her. “I was just writing about that place.”

I grilled her about the places she’d danced and the girls she knew.

She was 72 years old, so she had worked at some famous theaters that had closed just before I started.

She had worked at the Zanzibar, Le Strip and The Victory, a theater which had been North America’s first purpose-built Yiddish Theater – before it became a burlesque palace.

She knew some of the dancers I had worked with. It was hit and miss. Her name was Nina and she had to apologise because she sometimes forgot what she was talking about.

“Did you know Fantasia?” I asked.

“She was beautiful,” said Nina. “But then she couldn’t work. Her boyfriend.”

“What about Mary Lou?” I asked.

“She was a go-getter. She opened a store.”

“I used to do a nurse show,” I told her. “Nurse Annie.”

“Nurse Annie!” said Nina. “She had a good act.”

She smiled at the memory, forgetting it was me who had said it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canada, Nostalgia, Sex

The repeated re-invention of Tom Jones

Martin Soan in the O2 before the show started

Martin Soan discovers butterflies in stomach before the show

Last night, with comedy performer Martin Soan, I went to the O2 Arena in London to see a gig by Tom Jones and Van Morrison.

Both Martin and I are frightened of heights. Well, he is frightened of heights. I am frightened of overbalancing. So I cannot walk across the new Hungerford foot bridge over the Thames, which has no visible supports when you are on it – I can only get about 40% of the way across and then I want to throw myself down on the tarmac and hold onto the surface for dear life.

Tom Jones - the original Henry Fielding film one

Tom Jones – the original movie one

It dates back to a childhood incident.

You had to be there.

Suffice it to say that the O2 Arena is so steeply tiered that only abseilers or bungee-jumpers can feel 100% safe.

The only previous time I was there, my eternally-un-named friend tied herself to the armrest with a scarf.

But I am glad I went last night.

Tom Jones is an example to all performers of all kinds that perpetual re-invention is a good, indeed necessary, thing.

I am old enough to remember seeing his first few appearances on British TV when he tended to wear a white flowing shirt and have his hair tied into what was almost a pony tail at the back. The image was almost of a novelty act because…

… of course, he took his stage name from Tony Richardson’s film of Henry Fielding’s bawdy romp Tom Jones which had made the hairstyle trendy.

That initial surge of success took him to Las Vegas.

But, by 1987, his star – in the UK at least – was slightly fading. Then he appeared on Channel 4’s The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross. The programme’s researcher Graham K Smith (later Commissioner for Comedy & Entertainment at both Channel 4 and Five) used to handle music on the show and refused to let artists perform their latest release or songs they were famous for. He insisted on something the audience would not expect and persuaded Tom to sing Prince’s Kiss which, as far as I remember, created another surge in his career.

And now, of course, Tom Jones is seen in the UK as one of the judges on BBC1’s The Voice – although he lives in Los Angeles.

It is all a matter of perception.

I tried to persuade Martin Soan to explore the possibility of going to China to expand his career.

“You’re ideal,” I told him. “Your act is not language-based. It’s visual. It’s surreal. It’s performance art. There are bits of mime-like things in there. Puppets. Strange characters. Bright colours. Strange props. Experimental. The Chinese would love it. You could even take Punch & Judy there.”

But I think Martin’s mind was on butterflies.

My mind was on Hungerford Bridge.

2 Comments

Filed under Nostalgia

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

My parents after their wedding

My parents after their wedding

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

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

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

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

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

My father’s father was a Merchant Navy captain

My father’s father was a Merchant Navy captain

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

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

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

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

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

Charmian inherited her Victorian relative’s chest

Charmian inherited her relative’s chest

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

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

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

Charmian’s distinguished grandfather

Charmian’s distinguished grandfather

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

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

Charmian’s less-distinuished relative

Charmian’s rather less-distinuished relative

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

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

A physiotherapist? I asked.

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

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

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

A hat stand nicked from the Russians?

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

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

Interesting.

Even fascinating.

And it is a very nice hat stand.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Nostalgia, Russia, Spain

A comic desperate for laughs in London – and how to lose a theatre arts grant

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee: the comic who got caught short on stage (Photograph by Vincent Lewis)

I was talking to someone – let’s call her Beryl – about how things change. My eternally un-named friend was there. The subject of the late comedian Malcolm Hardee came up.

“My mum refused to laugh at Malcolm,” Beryl told me. “He would try lots and lots of things to make her laugh. She’d say to me: Don’t laugh at him. He’s as silly as a goat! And Malcolm was attention-seeking, so he’d try his hardest to make my mum laugh. He would dance silly dances.

“I had this funny old radio that I’d bought from a charity shop and Malcolm would come in and say Oh, I like the radio. Let’s put it on and then maybe Saturday Night Fever would come on and he’d dance the John Travolta dance and my mum would snore. She did laugh when he wasn’t there. He was banned from the Albany Empire, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” I said. “I was there the night he pissed on the stage during his act and the people who gave out the grants to keep the Albany going were in the audience that night. I think he said, Oy Oy Hold on, I’ve got caught short! and went to the back of the stage – I think he may have turned his back on the audience, which was unusual, and pissed. You could see this arc of water.”

“He didn’t like it there,” said Beryl. “He said you had to be a one-legged lesbian to be accepted there. It was all politically correct. And he wasn’t terribly politically correct, was he? It’s such a good venue but they don’t really do comedy there now, do they?

“I don’t think they do anything much there,” my eternally-un-named friend said. “There’s the odd stabbing I think I’ve heard of. At a boys’ club. Usually of someone who’s organised a boys’ club. Some poor do-gooder. Big mistake.”

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy, London