Tag Archives: novel

British Lieutenant Colonel writes comedy novel about Sierra Leone war

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

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind his novel

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind novel

It’s not often a serving British Army officer writes a comic novel about a real war he was involved in. So Eating Diamond Pie by David Thorpe is an interesting one.

When I met him last week, I asked: “Did you think I want to write a book or did you think I want to get Sierra Leone out of my system?”

“I didn’t need to get it out of my system,” explained David. “I just wanted to write a book, but I intentionally didn’t do much research on how to do that. I thought If I do, it will be formulaic. So all I did was find out how many words you’re supposed to write – 70,000 to 90,000 words for a first book – this one is 86,000 words. And the only other piece of advice I followed was Write about what you know. I thought What do I know? Well, I knew about the civil war in Sierra Leone.

“It’s not a military book. It’s about a guy who’s ex-military, working for an aid agency and most of it is really just pointing fingers at the aid agencies. It’s a fictional book, though set in a real war. I could have taken that story and put it against other backdrops I know: Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Iraq or Afghanistan and perhaps I will write books about those in the future.

“I actually wrote the plan for this book on the flight out to Iraq thinking I would write it when I was in Iraq – in my spare time! But this was in 2007, when it was fairly hairy out there and the tour was at such a frenetic pace that there was no time to write. When I came back, I was at based at Catterick in North Yorkshire while my family was still living down south, so suddenly I found myself ‘married unaccompanied’, as we say, and I sat in a little flat in Richmond, North Yorkshire, on my own every evening. It took six months.”

At what point did you put humour into it?” I asked.

“It was always going to be a comic book.”

“You wrote an article for Mensa Magazine last month,” I pointed out, “where you mentioned the Sierra Leone rebels’ habit of using machetes to hack off arms or hands – which they called the ’short sleeve’ option or the ‘long sleeve’ option. You said it was a conflict completely bereft of sympathy, compromise or humanity. So this war was serious insanity and you decided to write a comedy about it…”

“Well,” said David, “there’s Springtime For Hitler and Catch-22 and Blackadder Goes Forth… War is a fascinating human activity and it’s at the extremes. So, if you’re making any type of social comment or documentary comedy, you can find it easier to hook it onto the extremes of humanity.

“Once I’d written it, I had this moment of terror thinking: You know, this could really badly backfire here: Army officer has written a funny book about war. But, then, none of it is: Look! That man’s had his arm cut off! Isn’t that funny? Let’s crack a joke. And, if you write something that’s bland and completely uncontroversial, what’s the point? Imagine if Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin just painted nice pictures of landscapes…”

“You joined the army when you were 17,” I said. “And have been involved in several wars.”

“Oh yes,” David said. “Always plenty of wars going on.”

“There’s that statistic,” I said, “that, in the last hundred years, there’s only been one year…”

“Yes,” said David, “only one year -1968 – when a British soldier hasn’t been killed in active operations.”

“They used to say a hundred years.” I mused, “Probably much more than a hundred years now.”

“It’s not brilliant, is it?” said David. “I went on a battlefield tour recently. The World War One battlefields. The Somme. And I realised human beings are a fairly ridiculous species. The way we solve our problems: using all our technology to kill each other. When you see the industrial scale of World War One, it’s just so ridiculous. The final trenches ended up just 200 metres further on than the very first trench that was dug. Ten million dead. You just think: Really? And we’re the alpha species on Earth?”

“Why were you in Sierra Leone?” I asked.

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the war

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the civil war

“We were part of IMATT – the International Military Assistance Training Team, helping the Republic of Sierra Leone’s armed forces organise themselves.”

“What about the West Side Boys?” I asked. “Weren’t they high on drugs most of the time? They thought they were superhuman and ironically, because they were crazed on drugs, they were superhuman because they would do anything.”

“They’d cover themselves with amulets,” said David. “It’s in the book. They were into Voodoo and they believed it and, of course, if you convince someone – and it helps if they’re high on drugs – and you tell them You are bullet-proof, then they’re going to run towards the enemy very quickly. So we had to try and convince them that this wasn’t such a brilliant military tactic. But without destroying their value set.

“African wars are mostly about logistics and not firing off all your bullets in the first ten minutes. If you can just control your rate of fire you will win.

“We made the mistake earlier on of trying to train them as a Western force. There’s no point. You could give them the most complex set of tactics you could come up with but, ultimately, all they wanted to do was line up in two ranks behind a big truck with a big gun on it and march forward and then start firing. And whoever had the most bullets left won. Variations on that theme.”

“Ultimately, you won,” I said.

The Revolutionary United Front was a loose affiliation of criminals and ne’er-do-wells,” explained David, “and there was a lot of swapping of loyalties, jumping sides. Groups would fight sometimes for the government, sometimes for the rebels, depending on what suited them.

“In Africa, though, there’s a capacity for forgiveness you often don’t find elsewhere. We took all the weapons off the various warring factions, put them all in a demobilisation camp and, after some antagonism in the first 24-48 hours, they all calmed down and they were playing football together within two days. You witnessed this and you suddenly had hope. You thought There is a real chance of peace here, because these guys are prepared to forgive. 

“But, if you go to Bosnia and bump into a Serb, he’ll have a tattoo on his forearm – a large cross with four Cs in each corner – which, in Serbo-Croat, means Only Unity Can Save The Serbs. He’s celebrating and remembering the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. He’ll absolutely hang his hat on that as a reason he hates the Croats and the Bosniac Moslems.  So what chance have you got of peace?

“And you go to Northern Ireland and the Catholics will be raging about the Battle of the Boyne and you can never go forwards if all your politics is based on what’s behind you. What happened in the past may be unjust, it may be bad but, if it’s 400 years ago – you know – get over it. We are just blips in history. We’re here and then we’re gone.”

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Filed under Africa, Books, Comedy, Military, Sierra Leone, war

Comedian Sameena Zehra, a homicidal pacifist, insists she really is quite mad

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

Sameena with husband in Edinburgh last year

Sameena with husband in Edinburgh last year

“When I’m stressed,” Sameena Zehra told me in London’s Covent Garden last week, “I make architectural floor plans to calm myself. I put in where the electric points go. If I ever have a plot of land and money to build, I will have hundreds of floor plans to choose from. But I really shouldn’t tell people about liking architectural plans.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s part of my general madness… homicide and everything else. When I have an argument with my husband, I plan the arrangements for his funeral in detail. I’ve planned my own as well. I’m going to have a Viking funeral.”

“Why?”

“I like the idea of people standing by a beach and sending me off on a raft and then firing burning arrows at it.”

“But before that, on the 4th of April,” I said, “you’re starting a new monthly comedy club in West Ham called WHAT?””

“It’s called the Cult of Comedy,” said Sameena, “mainly because I’ve always wanted to start a cult because I want loads of people who will do my bidding.”

“If I were doing cheap psychology…” I ventured. “Liking architectural plans, wanting a Viking funeral and starting a cult makes it seem like you want to control things which, I suppose, comedians want to do because they want to control and affect the audience.”

“I have no desire to control the audience,” Sameena replied. “But, in my own life, I have had a thing about wanting to control the things that happen in order for me to then go crazy – because you need the boundaries. I would never go up on stage with a half-finished piece of work.”

“Ideally,” I suggested, “you should go on stage with a script fully worked-out in extreme detail and throw parts of it away to fit into what happens on the night. Then you always have a strong skeleton to fall back on.”

Sameena with a cuddly friend; without any sharp machete

Sameena with cuddly friend but without any sharp machete

“But you have to have courage to do that,” said Sameena.”And ability. I’ve been doing comedy for two and a half years and I’m not good enough to just ‘let go’. I’m still learning. I was an actor for fifteen years: I really enjoyed doing original writing, new plays. Sometimes I worked on plays that were still being written, which was fascinating.

“One of the reasons I moved from acting to comedy was I wanted creative control of my work. Really, as an actor, if I’d had one more offer or audition as an Asian shopkeeper or a terrorist’s wife, sister or daughter, I would have killed someone. I loved being an actor but I wanted to leave while I still loved it.

“Comedy’s amazing, because you write something and you take it out and do it. You don’t have to wait for a producer or a director or anybody. You just write it and do it and then you stand or fall on the quality of your work. I’ve given myself five years to get to a point where I have some sort of audience that likes my work.”

“You know my theory,” I said, “that you have to play the Edinburgh Fringe three years in a row. The first year, they don’t know you’re there. The second year, you get some attention. The third year, they see you as an established performer.”

“I may not be able to do Edinburgh this year,” Sameena told me. “I don’t know if I can afford it. But, if I don’t do a full show, I am going to go up for a week and do open spots and see other shows.”

“The danger if you leave a year gap between shows,” I said, “is you have to start from scratch again because not only do audiences change but reviewers change. So where is this place you want to be after five years from starting comedy?”

Sameena’s 2012 show

Sameena’s 2012 Edinburgh Fringe show: Tea With Terrorists

“I want to be touring my show and to have found my voice and be more courageous and have written a really good piece. I think my show at the Fringe last year – Tea With Terrorists – was a good show. The new one I’m writing – Homicidal Pacifist I don’t know what that’s going to be like. After five years in comedy, I would like to have honed my craft and to have had fun doing it and I would like to have done it with integrity.”

“And,” I asked, “if you don’t reach that point after five years?”

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” said Sameena. “I’ll keep doing comedy, I’ll just have to change my strategy.”

“So why are you now a Homicidal Pacifist?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Sameena, “I am a pacifist in my heart: I believe in non-violent civil disobedience. I believe that, when we use violence, it demeans and diminishes us as human beings… On the other hand, I occasionally have the urge to get a machete and run around an Asda supermarket with it.

“Here’s the thing. I love humanity, the adjective. But I do not like Humanity, the noun.

Sameena’s new 2013 comedy show

Sameena’s new 2013 comedy show, previewing in Brighton

“The premise of my new show is that I’m working on a plan to cull the human race. It’s going to be thought-out and logical. There’s going to be a questionnaire. If you fail it, you get three years to fix yourself. If, after three years, you haven’t fixed yourself, you’re going to be culled.

“There’s going to be a culling aisle in the supermarket. Every supermarket will have one and there will be an announcement that goes: Attention! Customer announcement! Culling will begin in Aisle 3 in fifteen minutes.

“There are certain groups that will have a preponderance, like merchant bankers. It doesn’t mean all of them will be culled – because I’m unwilling to dismiss a whole group of people just because of the worst characteristics of 90% of them.

“That’s where I am. I’m very angry about things and I can imagine being in a news story that ends with the words: She then turned the gun on herself. But I hope I won’t. So I need to get it out of my system.

“I love crime fiction. It must be the homicidal inside me. I love Elmore Leonard and Steven Saylor, who sets all his crime novels in the Roman Empire. You get a whole milieu; you learn about the social history of Rome. Same with Dorothy L.Sayers: 1920s Britain. Same with C.J.Sansom who writes novels set during Henry VIII’s reign. I think I like the puzzles as well. I’m a great fan of puzzles.”

“And architectural floor plans,” I said.

“I’m writing a crime novel myself,” Sameena told me.

“Based where?” I asked, surprised.

“In modern-day London. I’ve always wanted to write a crime novel. It’s about a woman in her thirties who used to be part of a three-person team that did extractions in South American and African countries where people get kidnapped.”

“Extractions for companies?” I asked.

“Yes. And now she runs a private detective agency with a friend of hers.”

I asked: “Can I say that in my blog or will someone nick the idea?”

Sameena Zehra

Sameena – a fan of detectives & kick-ass Moghuls

“Who cares if they nick the idea?” replied Sameena. “The one I want to write – the one I need to write before I die – is a detective novel set during the Moghul Empire in India. There was a Moghul King called Akbar The Great and the years of his reign are pretty concurrent with Elizabeth I in England. It was a Moslem dynasty and he was an amazing guy. It was one of his descendants who built the Taj Mahal.

“I’ve got a female detective in mind who is part midwife, part travelling mendicant. You need a character who can pass between royalty and the common people. She goes around solving mysteries and I would like to have the absolutely amazing tapestry of the Moghul Empire behind these everyday stories. Nowadays, because we’re all becoming Islamophobic, we’re forgetting that Islam was a real force for spreading knowledge. And women were educated. They had options. They even went into war. There are lots of famous Indian women warriors. They kicked ass.”

“You strike me as being very organised,” I said. “Isn’t being disorganised, doolally and mad almost a pre-requisite for being a comic?”

“A lot of people have said to me that comedians are mad,” said Sameena, “and stupid and bitchy. But I haven’t had that experience. By-and-large, the people that I’ve met have been generous and encouraging and lovely to meet. I’ve met the occasional arsehole, but I’ve just gone I’m not having anything to do with you, thankyou very much.”

“I like comedians,” I said. “But they do tend to be doolally in one way or another. That’s what makes them interesting.”

“Well, I’m quite mad,” said Sameena. “I’m quite aware of this.”

“No, no,” I said. “You come across as being a director or producer. Someone who’s creative but not mad.”

“I am quite mad,” insisted Sameena. “I hide it very well.”

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Filed under Comedy, India, UK

Why do people keep criticising macho, talented, not really small Tom Cruise?

Jim Grant aka Lee Child, father of Reacher

Jim Grant aka Lee Child, father of Reacher

Last night, my eternally-un-named friend and I went to see the new Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher.

I wanted to see it because the original novel was written by Lee Child, the pen-name of Jim Grant, a quiet, self-contained man I used to work with at Granada TV in Manchester. We were not friends; we just worked in the same department; and we have not kept in touch. But I knew him in a general way.

So I have an interest, but no personal axe to grind.

Jack Reacher was wonderful.

I was not expecting too much of it. Perhaps because of that, I was amazed at how good it was.

Quite a few reviews rightly praised the acting of German film director Werner Herzog who was cast as the terrifyingly icy villain. And some appreciated the always wonderful actor Robert Duvall. But Tom Cruise got little credit. Why?

I may be totally wrong, but I thought he may have partly based his Jack Reacher character’s apparent inner stillness on Jim Grant/Lee Child (who appears very briefly in the background of one scene as a police desk sergeant.)

Some of the reviews I read before seeing the film were rather lukewarm, rather grudging. Most seemed to carp on about how Tom Cruise does not look like the 6’5″ Jack Reacher of the novels.

Well, tough shit.

Sean Connery looked nothing like the English James Bond in the original Ian Fleming novels. Indeed, the Bond movies’ plots have almost nothing to do with the novels from which they nick their titles.

I have not read any of Lee Child’s 17 Jack Reacher novels but, if the plot of this first Jack Reacher movie bears any relation to the original book (One Shot) then ‘Lee Child’ writes bloody good books.

My eternally-un-named friend – often a Rom Com movie lover – and I had sat through a DVD of the appalling near-laugh-free zone that is Bridesmaids the previous night. When we came out of the cinema last night after seeing Jack Reacher, she simply said to me: “That was wonderful”. And it was, apart from a single bizarrely miscalculated scene in which Reacher throws away his gun and his advantage to have a macho fistfight… What was that all about?

The rest? Absolutely wonderful.

So why the grudging reviews? And why the constant sniping at Tom Cruise for being small?

It seemed a lot of the carping reviews were obsessed with the fact that, in the books, Jack Reacher is 6’5” and Tom Cruise is famously tiny. It didn’t make any difference to me, a non-reader of the books. He played ‘tough’ very effectively, just as he does in his Mission Impossible movies.

But, in any case, he is not actually small. He is 5’7″. The same height as Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Robert Downey Jnr… Are they small?

Daniel Radcliffe is 5’5″ and Emilio Estevez is 5’4; Jack Black, who played the large Gulliver, is 5’6″. Ben Stiller is 5’8″. Are they candidates for a re-make of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs? I think not.

Perhaps people keep criticising Tom Cruise because he is so successful or perhaps because he is a Scientologist. Who knows? It makes no difference to his acting or movie producing ability.

All I know is that he is a good actor and a good producer.

You don’t get cast by directors Michael Mann or Steven Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson just for being a Big Name. You get cast for acting ability. And, in the pre-credit sequence of Mission Impossible III, he gives a virtual masterclass in how to act the whole gamut of emotions.

He also produced the four Mission Impossible films.

The first was awful (employing visual stylist Brian De Palma as director, then filling the movie with scenes of people talking to each other, sometimes over tables in dull rooms)… but Mission Impossible II was very good… Mission Impossible III was an utterly superb piece of film-making… one of my favourite films… and the fourth Mission Impossible was a return to the quality of the second film. Not a bad average.

I just hope Tom Cruise makes at least another sixteen Jack Reacher movies, even if he will be a bit long in the tooth by the end.

Perhaps, like James Bond, they will re-cast occasionally.

But, for the foreseeable future, I am more than happy to watch Tom Cruise be tall and macho and talented.

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Filed under Books, Movies

Edinburgh Fringe: culture, crowds and bodily fluids plus British eccentricity

Bob Boyton at Scots book launch

After I eventually prised myself out of the clutches of sleep yesterday morning (I refer you to my previous blog), I ended up at the Scottish book launch of former stand-up comedian Bob Boyton’s novel Bomber Jackson Does Some, an extraordinary piece of work about which I’ve blogged before.

“I hope that one of the things I’ve covered in this book,” said Bob, “is the experience of being skint, which is often not reflected in literary fiction, although it’s almost always reflected in crime fiction. I think if there was a genre called ‘social realism’ any more, that’s probably where I’d place this book.”

I had no sooner left the cultural oasis of the Word Power Books shop, than I got brought back to earth with a bang by news from comedian Chris Dangerfield, whose Sex Tourist show is sponsored by a local Edinburgh escort agency.

A man fainted at the very thought of Chris Dangerfield’s show

“A man fainted halfway through my gig last night,” he told me, “just as I said This next bit is a tad gross – the joke being that the whole show had been a bit bleak up to that point. The story I almost told is actually about ‘a multiple bodily fluids accident’ but I had not even got into the details when this punter spasmed a little and fell off his chair. Commotion ensued, I quickly got help and he was revived with lots of fanning and lying down, which took about five minutes. He was then taken off and I continued with my show, making a point of getting everyone to agree what a rude and insensitive thing it was for him to do during my fantastic show, which still ended very well.

The queue for Chris Dangerfield’s comedy show at The Hive

“I’ve been turning people away every night due to too many people,” Chris continued.

Normally, I would treat any comedian telling me that with a gigantic pinch of salt, but I had seen his queues the previous day.

“I’ve had more than one management/agent,” Chris claimed, “ask me to recommend their paid shows at the end of my free show. I wonder if they would do the same for me?”

Phil Kay’s show, unbilled in the Fringe Programme, got ’em in

Chris Dangerfield’s show is on at the Hive, which is also where Phil Kay’s unbilled show has been running (it finished last night).

I failed to get in to see the show on its penultimate night, because it was so crowded by the time I arrived. Even Bob Slayer failed to get into the room that night – and he was staging the show!

“I rammed people in standing,” Bob told me, “then managed to sell four more tickets to sit in the sound booth. I called them ‘box seats’ and charged double.”

As for Bob’s own show Bob Slayer – He’s a Very Naughty Boy – well, he is not the sort of man who keeps to a pre-prepared script. So it came as no surprise when he told me: “I managed to get halfway through it today – the furthest I’ve managed by a long shot. Tomorrow I am going to start at the point I finished off today, as it’s an especially good bit.”

Ever the consummate professional, he added: “I am giddy with drink. Next week the real fun starts, though. Shall we burn down things?”

In Tim’s audience last night was Nicholas Parsons

Then I was off to see Tim FitzHigham’s Pleasance show Stop The Pigeon which, I guess, falls halfway between culture and anarchic English eccentricity. In his introduction, Tim said: “Other people just do shows. I get an idea and follow it through with the relentless commitment of a cartoon character.”

That pretty much sums him up.

You cannot not like Tim’s enthusiasm. His show is a romp and his facts near impossible to believe, even though they are all true. This year, it was about another unlikely adventurous bet he took on, this one involving pigeons, a very large cannon and a trampoline. But he also managed to admirably mention in passing the sadly-no-longer-with-us 18th century Farting Club of Cripplegate “whose avowed intention was to meet up once a week to poison the local atmosphere and, with their noisy crepitations, attempt to out-fart one another.

“But ask yourself who,” said Tim, “would want to live in the building next door to the Farting Club of Cripplegate? Let me tell you – this is true – the No Nose Club for gentlemen who had lost their noses in an heroical fashion.”

Tim, father to be, surprised by NHS

After the show, Tim told me he is to become a father again in October and he knows it will be a boy despite the fact the NHS is now barred from telling potential parents the sex of their future child.

“Well, that’s the explanation they gave to me, anyway,” said Tim. “The story goes that some woman – allegedly in Chelsea – was told the sex of her unborn child and decorated the nursery in either blue or pink – she spent an absolute fortune – and it turned out to be the wrong one so she sued the hospital for the cost of the nursery. As a result, the NHS are not allowed to tell you the sex of your unborn baby but, when they hovered the thing over my wife, my future son waved his dangly bits to the camera. So we do know.”

Tim was a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee last year and now (no connection, alas) has an up-coming ten-part TV series for CBBC.

“It’s tramsmitted in January,” he told me. “It’s called Superhumans and I fly all over the world meeting people with biological or genetic quirks which mean they can do extraordinarily weird stuff that the rest of us can’t do.

“So, for example, I flew to Iceland to meet a man who can withstand extreme cold. For some reason he is able to consciously control the hypothalamus in his brain.

“The hypothalamus regulates core body temperature and he can literally tell his core body temperature to go up and no-one’s quite sure how he’s doing it. So I challenged him to three challenges to try and prove how superhuman he is – or not. Because, if I can beat him, then the implication is he’s faking it.”

“Does this come under the heading of science?” I asked.

“It comes under the heading of a lot of fun,” said Tim.

And so does Tim.

When I woke up this morning, there was an e-mail from Bob Slayer sent at 3.03am. It simply said:

“Phil Kay was last seen in the Jazz Bar, killing time before his 5.00am flight back to civilisation, juggling chairs.”

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Eccentrics, Science, Television

Comedian-turned-novelist Bob Boyton is the real “Bomber Jackson” McCoy

Bob Boyton at last night’s book launch for his first novel

For someone who is allegedly an ex-comedian, Bob Boyton can certainly still draw a big crowd. I went to the book launch for his first novel last night and the fairly large venue was overflowing with people into the next room and included such iconic figures as Tony Allen, Arnold Brown, Dave Cohen, Tony Green, Mark Kelly, Nick Revell and Mark Thomas.

It was a slightly frustrating evening, as two of those people told me absolutely cracking stories but said they didn’t want me to blog about them.

However, Bob Boyton made up for it.

I first mentioned his book in a blog a couple of months ago.

Now Bomber Jackson Does Some has been published.

The novel is about an ex-boxer and heavy drinker who has ‘done time’ in prison.

The blurb reads:

What chance has a bloke got of going straight when it’s been twenty years of boozing and prison since his last big fight? That’s what Bomber Jackson has to discover when he sets out in search of love and sobriety. 

It’s the early hopeful years of the Blair government but hope is in short supply for an edgy homeless ex boxer and what else can he do but pick himself up and start again every time life knocks him over…. except slowly bit by bit he seems to get the feel for what a new life would be like if only he could stay away from the drink. Then just when Bomber could be saved there comes a final act of loyalty and violence which might leave him dead or in prison for a very long time.

Bob has never been sentenced to prison and has never been a professional boxer (though, in my previous blog about him, he drew a parallel between being a boxer and being a stand-up comedian).

He says: “One thing people ask you when you’ve written a book is Well, is it true?

“My novel stands at around 74,000 words and there’s about another 30,000 that I discarded. It covers a period of about 18 months or two years and I think in all that time Bomber Jackson has a crap once. By anyone’s standards, if he were a real person, he would be quite constipated. There’s truth and reality there in the novel, but a lot of the writing is in the editing.”

In 1982, he started an involvement with people at Arlington House, a hostel for homeless men in London’s Camden Town.

The hard-drinking Irish writer Brendan Behan lived there at one point, as did George Orwell, who wrote about the experience in his book Down and Out in Paris and London. It also turns up in the first line of pop group Madness’ song One Better Day.

“I knew guys who both lived and worked there,” Bob explained last night, “They were guys who, I think, the mainstream would apply the term ‘dosser’ to. But they were all individuals; none of them were stereotypes.

“There were about 800 people staying there at the time.”

Some of his Arlington House contacts took him to a pub one evening, Bob says, “to test me out – and also because it was a Thursday, so I’d just got paid and could buy beer”.

The pub was called The Good Mixer and later became an epicentre of alternative music but, at that time, “it was run by a bloke with one leg and the only rules were you could have as many fights as you wanted but you wouldn’t get slung out unless you broke glasses. If you broke a glass, that was it. End of. You were barred for at least 24 hours. I put up a front, so the Arlington House blokes must have been convinced I had the necessary bottle.

“I’ll be honest with you, I did look down a bit on these geezers. I thought they were different from me, but it was quite a bad part of my life and I was probably only three or four wage packets away from where they were. That was the start of my background with homeless people.

“Bomber Jackson Does Some” book cover

“We did have a few ex-footballers at Arlington House and I was struck at the time by the difficulty for somebody who had ‘been someone’ and then they weren’t. Being a bit different, they’d got the chance to get away from the factory or building site and then that chance had disappeared but they hadn’t saved dough. That’s one of the factors built into the novel.”

Reviewing the book, Boxing News said Bob “looks like he’s good for a few rounds”.

The Independent newspaper wrote that the dialogue “resonates with authenticity”.

And comedian/writer Mark Thomas says: “No-one but Bob could tell the stories he tells in this book because of who he is and where he’s been. In a world of artifice he stands out. He’s the Real McCoy.”

Indeed he is.

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Filed under Books, Boxing, Comedy, Writing

A stand-up comedian is like a boxer

Bob Boyton: from punch-lines to punches

A couple of days ago, I blogged about seeing Mark Kelly’s second try-out of his show-in-the-process-of-being-written Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act, which took place at Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club. Comedian Martin Soan was also in the audience.

Afterwards, I got talking to comedian-turned-writer Bob Boyton about a novel which he has spent ten years writing and which is going to be published in May. But we got sidetracked into the link between boxing and comedy.

What’s the book about?” I asked Bob.

“It’s called Bomber Jackson Does Some,” he said. “The eponymous hero is a homeless ex-boxer called Anthony ‘Bomber’ Jackson. It’s not autobiographical, but I did do some boxing training while I was writing it. I trained with Mark Reefer, an ex-Commonwealth champion who didn’t become famous despite being a champion. He was good but perhaps not big enough at his weight. A great trainer. Someone who lavished love on his training. And I’ve worked with homeless people for many years, so there’s also a link there.”

“Is it a funny novel?” I asked.

“No, not really,” he replied. “A couple of jokes in it.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t like novels with jokes in ‘em,” Bob told me. “I hate when you buy a novel by a comic and he hasn’t really developed enough plot or done enough work on the characters, so he just pads it out with bits of his routine. I think it’s disrespectful of the novel and of fiction. And it’s a bit disrespectful of your act.

“It’s a problem for comedians,” he continued, “that there’s no legacy with comedy. A little bit, maybe, if you’re one of a golden few. I heard Max Miller on record and he was obviously strong and then Jimmy Jones done a lot of his material. But generally, in 150 years time, no-one’s gonna go That’s a great gag, that!… In 150 years time, Jeremy Hardy’s act won’t make any sense.”

“So your novel isn’t autobiographical?” I asked.

“Well,” laughed Bob, “I did research some of the drinking myself.”

“Why did it take you ten years?”

“There were times I just got fed up with writing the bloody thing. I kind of knew there was a story to be told. It is a bit like being a stand-up, thinking Right, I wanna deal with that subject so I’m gonna write a gag about it. It’s just a much longer process with a novel. When I was doing stand-up, I could write a gag and probably try it out in two nights time and then I might keep it in or not. Whereas I found you can spend ten years writing a novel. That’s probably why you need an editor.

“Bomber Jackson is a bloke in his mid-40s. His last big fight was at least 20 years ago… which he fucked-up because he’d been drinking when he should’ve been training. He’s fallen into criminality and those various things that happen to boxers because, if you’re good at hurting people, then you’re worth a lot of money to unsavoury characters.

“He’s just come out of prison and he knows he’s gotta find a different life. He’s done a lot of prison, a lot of small sentences and he goes in search of redemption and I hope the book keeps the reader wondering whether or not he finds it.. right to the end.”

“Why write about a boxer?” I asked.

“Well, I have a bit of a guilty pleasure. I’m a boxing fan and I’m drawn to it because they are very much like comedians. So I started off… I don’t think it lasted very long but… It was a kind of a metaphor for when I gave up stand-up…. You do it on your own. It’s not like football, where you can blame other team members.”

“Fighting the audience?” I asked.

“Well, not so much fighting but, it’s you – if you win, it’s great. And, if you lose…”

At this point, Ivor Dembina was passing by and heard what we were talking about.

“The thing about comedians,” Ivor said, “is that we’ve all seen each other die the death on stage – everyone. However good you are, however famous, we all know you’ve been there. So there’s that kind of gut respect. And, with boxers, even though they’re competing, they all know they have put themselves in that same position of being humiliated. So there’s that kind of bottom line respect.”

“I remember,” I said, “Ricky Grover (boxer-turned comedian and actor) “told me that, when you box, all that matters is that you don’t humiliate yourself. Humiliation is the worst thing.”

At this point, Martin Soan passed by.

“I’ve based my whole fucking career on being humiliated,” he said as he passed.

“Every comedian…” Ivor continued, “All of us – We’ve all died the death. We all know what it’s like. You never forget that. And you respect other people because they go back. Even though they got booed off, they went back and had another go. You respect them. It’s the same with boxers. A boxer can take a really bad beating, but he’ll go back and fight again.”

“That’s right,” agreed Bob. “Not many boxers gave it up because they lost. The business might have given them up in the end. But either they’ve made enough money and they’ve realised they want to go out somewhere near the top. Or they just can’t get any fights.”

At this point, Bob and I gave up talking about Bomber Jackson Does Some. The conversation moved on and people talked about Malcolm Hardee, Ian Hinchliffe and pissing in wardrobes. I must have another chat with Bob Boyton about his novel at some point before it is published in May.

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When people ask that British breaking-the-ice question: “What do you do?”

On Wednesday night, BBC2 will screen the first in a new series of that extraordinary TV comedy Rab C Nesbitt, written and created by Ian Pattison.

Last week, I asked Ian if there was something he would rather do instead of another series of Rab C Nesbitt.

“Instead of?” he replied. “Why not ‘in addition to?’ I’ve now finished writing my fourth novel and have written a screenplay based on my third. My novels, of course, don’t sell. I advised the publisher of my last book to put Ian Rankin’s name on the jacket on the basis that IR would never notice my sidled addition to his oeuvre as his stuff takes up all the shelves in Waterstone’s and most of the cafeteria.”

I suspect most fans who watch Rab C Nesbitt do not think of Ian primarily as a novelist. And most people who admire his novels do not think of him primarily as a TV comedy scriptwriter.

Pretty much throughout my life, Whenever people ask that first perennial British breaking-the-ice question, “What do you do?” I have immediately got into trouble, because I have never really known the correct answer.

Sometimes I say, “I have bummed around a lot,” which is probably closer to the truth than anything.

I suspect as a percentage, more than anything, I have probably sat in darkened rooms editing trailers and marketing/sales tapes. But, when I have said that, people have thought I was/am a videotape editor, which I never have been – too technical for me – I was called writer or producer or director or whatever the union or company felt like at the time – or whatever I wanted to make up for a nameless job – and, once you get into mentioning “I do on-air promotions”, you open a whole can of befuddled misunderstanding.

“Do people do that?” is a common response.

So, over the years, different people have thought I do different things, real or imagined, depending on what I happened to have been doing – or what they thought I was doing – at the exact moment I first met them.

TV research is one. Editor of books is another. Manager of comedians is one that always amuses me.

This sprang to mind on Friday, when I saw comedian Owen O’Neill ‘storm the room’ as the saying goes at the always excellent monthly Pull The Other One in Peckham.

Most people who see Owen perform comedy, I suspect, see him as “just” a stand-up comic which, of course, is far from the truth. If they know a bit about comedy, they may know he has performed at over 20 Edinburgh Fringes and been nominated for the Perrier Award.

They may know he acted in the high-profile stage productions of Twelve Angry Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Odd Couple.

But I first met Owen off-stage in 2003 when Malcolm Hardee and I were commissioning Sit-Down Comedy for publishers Random House. It was an anthology of writing by comedians – not to be confused with the phrase “comic anthology” because a lot of the short stories are very, very dark (a glimpse, I suspect, of what lurks in many comedians’ minds). The book should have been called Sit-Down Comedians, but publishers’ mis-marketing of their own product knows no bounds.

Owen wrote a story The Basketcase for Sit-Down Comedy: a particularly dark and moving tale. His short film of The Basket Case (which he also directed) won him the award for Best Short Fiction movie at the 2008 Boston Film Festival in the US and Best International Short at the 2010 Fantaspoa Film Festival in Brazil.

Most people who see Owen perform comedy probably do not know this. Most probably do not know his first feature film as writer Arise and Go Now was directed by Oscar-winning Danny Boyle or that his play Absolution got rave reviews during its off-Broadway run or that he co-wrote the stage adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption currently running in the West End of London.

I suspect if a literate alien arrived from Alpha Centauri and looked at the facts objectively, Owen would be described not as a stand-up comic but as a playwright who also performs comedy (his plays are many and varied).

You get typecast as being one thing in life no matter how much you do.

In the last couple of months, comedian Ricky Grover appeared in BBC TV soap EastEnders; and the movie Big Fat Gypsy Gangster, which he wrote and directed, was released.

What do you call people like this?

Well, in Ricky’s case, you obviously call him “Mr Grover” and treat him with respect.

He also wrote for Sit-Down Comedy and I know his background too well!

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