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The opening of James Joyce’s novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”…

James Joyce in Zurich, 1916

Today, 16th June, is Bloomsday – the day on which James Joyce‘s Ulysses (1922) is set.

Joyce’s earlier novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) was on the syllabus at my school so I had to read it.

And I loved it. 

So, for no reason other than the fact this is Bloomsday – and to be quirky – and as an act of self-indulgence – and the not minor fact it is apparently out of copyright – here is the opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man… like all Joyce’s work, best read in your mind in an Irish accent…


The first edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, published by B. W. Huebsch in 1916

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

O, the green wothe botheth.

When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

His mother had a nicer smell than his father. She played on the piano the sailor’s hornpipe for him to dance. He danced:

Tralala lala,
Tralala tralaladdy,
Tralala lala,
Tralala lala.

Uncle Charles and Dante clapped. They were older than his father and mother but uncle Charles was older than Dante.

Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. Dante gave him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper.

The Vances lived in number seven. They had a different father and mother. They were Eileen’s father and mother. When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:

—O, Stephen will apologise.

Dante said:

—O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.—

Pull out his eyes,
Apologise,
Apologise,
Pull out his eyes.

Apologise,
Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes,
Apologise.

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes were weak and watery. Rody Kickham was not like that: he would be captain of the third line all the fellows said.

Rody Kickham was a decent fellow but Nasty Roche was a stink. Rody Kickham had greaves in his number and a hamper in the refectory. Nasty Roche had big hands. He called the Friday pudding dog-in-the-blanket. And one day he had asked:

—What is your name?

Stephen had answered: Stephen Dedalus.

Then Nasty Roche had said:

—What kind of a name is that?

And when Stephen had not been able to answer Nasty Roche had asked:

—What is your father?

Stephen had answered:

—A gentleman.

Then Nasty Roche had asked:

—Is he a magistrate?

He crept about from point to point on the fringe of his line, making little runs now and then. But his hands were bluish with cold. He kept his hands in the side pockets of his belted grey suit. That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt. One day a fellow said to Cantwell:

—I’d give you such a belt in a second.

Cantwell had answered:

—Go and fight your match. Give Cecil Thunder a belt. I’d like to see you. He’d give you a toe in the rump for yourself.

That was not a nice expression. His mother had told him not to speak with the rough boys in the college. Nice mother! The first day in the hall of the castle when she had said goodbye she had put up her veil double to her nose to kiss him: and her nose and eyes were red. But he had pretended not to see that she was going to cry. She was a nice mother but she was not so nice when she cried. And his father had given him two five-shilling pieces for pocket money. And his father had told him if he wanted anything to write home to him and, whatever he did, never to peach on a fellow. Then at the door of the castle the rector had shaken hands with his father and mother, his soutane fluttering in the breeze, and the car had driven off with his father and mother on it. They had cried to him from the car, waving their hands:

—Goodbye, Stephen, goodbye!

—Goodbye, Stephen, goodbye!


…and here is Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy from the climax of Ulysses

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The ‘unfilmable’ Wrong People – in a movie that has taken 50 years to make

David’s next project is very un-comedic…

The last time I chatted to David McGillivray was in May 2019 BC…

Before Covid.

This year he celebrates his 40th year writing for Julian Clary but also he is about to direct a movie of Robin Maugham’s controversial 1967 novel The Wrong People. The pitch is… 

Set against the backdrop of 1960s Tangier, this thriller tells the story of Arnold Turner, a repressed English schoolmaster on holiday in Morocco, where he meets Ewing Baird, a wealthy American expat with a dark secret. As Turner becomes more involved with Ewing he realises he has been lured into a dangerous trap.

So, obviously, David and I had a chat…


JOHN: The Wrong People… Very definitely a million miles away from the world of comedy. You’re directing it…

DAVID: It’s happening this summer.

JOHN: It’s described as “a thriller” but it sounds Arty to me.

DAVID: It’s a brilliant piece of writing and indeed a thrilling adventure as well as being a searing piece of social comment.

JOHN: …from the 1960s. Making movies is not easy.

DAVID: Well, the story of trying to get this film made starts 50 years ago when I was writing House of Whipcord and Frightmare for director Pete Walker and he was telling me about his Hollywood actor chum Sal Mineo, who was in London at the time, trying to set up The Wrong People as a film.

David with his well-thumbed copy of the book

Around that same time The Wrong People was re-published in paperback under Robin Maugham’s own name. Earlier, he had published it under a pseudonym – David Griffin – because that’s what his uncle Somerset Maugham recommended.

JOHN: Because…?

DAVID: Because of the subject matter. Sal Mineo was trying to set up the film but Pete Walker said to me: “They’ll never make it.” So I went and bought the book and, like Somerset Maugham, I read it in one sitting. I went back into Mr Walker’s office the next day and said: “You’re right. They’ll never make a film of it.”

Sal Mineo went to all manner of screenwriters. (Peter Shaffer, Edna O’Brien, David Sherwin etc) They all said No because they found the subject matter distasteful. He did get a script out of a children’s writer who had I think written episodes of Doctor Who. But his script was deemed not really suitable and they ended up with – what a surprise – Pete Walker’s screenwriter Murray Smith. I’ve never seen his script. There may have been other scripts – maybe one by Robin Maugham himself – but they have all disappeared. Anyway, Murray did one that Sal also didn’t like. So the whole project was doomed, really.

“I found it winking at me on the shelf”

Sal was unable to make the film. He returned to Los Angeles in 1974 and two years later was murdered. After that, I never thought a thing about The Wrong People until I found Sal Mineo: A Biography winking at me on the shelf. It was published in 2010 and there is an entire chapter on The Wrong People.

I read the original Maugham book again and decided that night: Right! I’m going to make the film myself!

JOHN: When I talked to you about The Wrong People back in 2019, you were looking for a director at that point. You were not going to direct it yourself.

DAVID: I ended up seeing a lot of people who weren’t that keen on directing it in the first place and, in all honesty, with whom – half of them – I didn’t want to work. One or two of them had the most extraordinary ideas about what they wanted to do with the material.

Then, when I was on a 65 bus, I decided Oh! This is going to go on for years! I’ll direct it myself.

So I scripted a version and contacted a distributor who had put out a couple of my other films. He liked it, but said it needed a re-write. So I contacted my old friend Peter Benedict and we are now up to Draft 7. He’s very good on structure.

JOHN: Why did you originally not want to direct it?

DAVID: I’m not a born director. I’m more of a producer. I’m not bad at organising. But, during the intervening years since 2014, my confidence has grown; I think I can make a fist of it now.

JOHN: Ooh… So what is the audience for the film? It’s an arty, gay, adventurous thriller? 

“…I would prefer not to lose all my money but if I break even that would be lovely…”

DAVID: Obviously it’s never going to play the Odeon, Leicester Square. It’s an arthouse picture that will have a limited audience. That’s fine with me. I would prefer not to lose all my money but if I break even that would be lovely.

JOHN: It’s your own money?

DAVID: Of course, as always. Nobody would ever dream of giving me a penny.

JOHN: When we chatted in 2019, you did say it would be quite expensive to film.

DAVID: Yes… well… the budget has been… reduced… We have had to compromise; it’s the name of the game. I’ve done it all my life. So it’s no longer three weeks location in Morocco. It’s now going to be done via the miracle of green screen.

Maugham was an under-rated talent. He’s only really known for The Servant. The Wrong People is written very filmically and that’s because he worked on quite a few films. He understood cinema and that was the reason I loved it when I read it. I could picture it all. He writes like a screenwriter.

Robin Maugham in 1974 (Photo by Allan Warren)

JOHN: I’ve never seen The Servant, but it’s a gay film and made in 1963…

DAVID: The Servant was heterosexualised. It was straightened up and, unless you were in the know, you would never be aware that it’s a gay story. It was, again, based on Maugham’s own experiences and, although the novel is slightly gay, it was mostly straightened up because the market wouldn’t have accepted it in those days. 

The film is brilliant but bizarre. I mean, there’s an orgy in it with Dirk Bogarde and a load of women and Robin Maugham quite rightly said: “The orgy scene at the end of the film was a cock-up. It was obvious to anyone that neither (screenwriter Harold) Pinter nor (director) Joe Losey had ever been to one.” And he’s right; it looks just so unreal.

JOHN: And you have experience of orgies?

“You’ll find I don’t mention any orgies…”

DAVID: I wouldn’t say orgies exactly, John. Did I admit to orgies in my autobiography? I think you’ll find I don’t mention any orgies.

JOHN: Because…?

DAVID: I didn’t go to any.

JOHN: But your house was a den of iniquity.

DAVID: We didn’t have orgies there, John. Other things went on in that house.

JOHN: Such as…?

DAVID: Didn’t we have this conversation three years ago? 

JOHN: But my reader in Guatemala may have forgotten.,,

DAVID: It’s all in my autobiography Little Did You Know. It is well worth a read.

JOHN: You’ve said Maugham created “a moral dilemma” in The Wrong People – What moral dilemma?

DAVID: Because The Wrong People is about child abuse. It was a difficult subject then; it’s a difficult subject today. But for different reasons… Now almost nobody will even discuss the subject. I’m going to bring it out into the open again. Because the subject has to be discussed. Child abuse goes on. It’s been swept under the carpet. 

JOHN: Really? I’ve written down here: Jeffrey Epstein; Kevin Spacey.

DAVID: Well, these high-profile cases peek out from the top of the parapets, but what we’re concerned with is what Maugham was concerned with in his book – the secret child abuse that goes on that is never reported. It was far more common in 1967 because people turned a blind eye to it. Now we KNOW it goes on but, as I say, we can’t discuss it.

Maugham very cleverly invents a situation that makes the reader – as I’m going to make the cinema audience – think twice about this subject and you’ll have to see the film in order to find out more.

A publicity folder for Sal Mineo’s unfilmed Wrong People…

JOHN: There is, the publicity blurb says, a “shockingly unexpected conclusion”.

DAVID: I don’t think the audience will know what’s going to happen next. That’s the genius of Maugham’s writing. You can’t imagine where this story is going. Towards the end, there are some marvellous twists. And the ending is… Alright, I’m going to tell you – I don’t think I’ve admitted this before – I have changed the ending. Well, it was Peter Benedict originally, to give him the credit. But it makes it even more powerful.

JOHN: He wakes up in the shower and it’s all been a dream?

DAVID: It’s a lovely idea but, of course, that’s not what happens.

JOHN: …and then the aliens arrive…?

DAVID: There are no aliens in The Wrong People, John.

JOHN: Is there a car chase?

DAVID: I’m afraid it’s not that kind of a film. It’s an arthouse movie for a specific audience.

JOHN: Well I guess, despite the lack of a car chase, I’m just gonna have to see it to the end…

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I mistook someone else for me in comic Janet Bettesworth’s pre-novel ‘doodles’

She studied Fine Art & Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

Everyone inevitably makes instant judgments on people’s characters at first sight: solely on their looks. But we seldom see ourselves as others see us.

Comedian, art connoisseur and Grouchy Club regular Janet Bettesworth recently announced: “I’m going to write a novel by doodling the characters first.” She studied Fine Art and Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

She is currently posting drawings – she calls them ‘doodles’ – on her Facebook page and asks three questions for Facebook Friends to answer about each unknown person sketched. For example:

  • What is his name?
  • The love of his life?
  • His taste in furniture?

I recognised the 25th sketch was of fellow Grouchy Club regular Peter Stanford. Janet’s questions were:

Peter Stanford – airlifted to safety after a farming incident?

  • What’s his name?
  • His most recent airborne experience?
  • Way of organising a picnic?

Answers included:

  • His name is Nils, he was airlifted to safety after a farming incident. Picnics for him are rye bread & herring & fermented ale.
  • He used to get gigs as a Brian Blessed looky-like until he accidentally boarded an EasyJet to Finland, where he found a lot more work playing Santa to tourists, and now he drinks mulled wine all year round.

And, from Peter Stanford himself:

  • Definitely one of the gods in your novel. Cranach looks down at the mortals giving the Deserving pieces of good luck and mugs of tea. He is rarely airborne as he can transport himself between the godly and earthly realms instantaneously. His worshippers organise ‘Picnics’ (feasts held indoors in the colder months and only outside in high summer) for the poor and homeless – and anyone else – in his honour as part of their devotions, instead of building temples. When he was appearing on earth, he drank mugs of tea, which he shared with other people. “Don’t build any temples”, he told them. “Just organise picnics and tea.” The cult is always in danger of dying out.

A few days later, Peter pointed out to me that No 30 in Janet’s series looked a lot like me, though with different-shaped spectacles. I had a look and thought: Well, bugger me, that does look like it’s me!

The three questions Janet asked of her Facebook Friends were:

Is this me? – or Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge?

  • What is his name?
  • His opinion of Boris Johnson?
  • His chances of winning the Lottery?

The answers seemed to reflect more on the personality of the commentator rather than on me and tended to reflect British people’s somewhat unhealthy continuing obsession with Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

  • Glenn Thoresby. What he really thinks of Boris Johnson is unprintable here; enough to say he believes that the British people have been lied to mercilessly by this entitled upper-class toff who doesn’t give a monkey’s: a feckless, narcissistic, utterly irresponsible public school product, a marionette of Dominic-whom-nobody-voted-for-Cummings. Glenn’s chances of winning the Lottery are nil as he doesn’t buy the tickets. He believes they are an exploitative tax on the poor who, (like Brexit voters) think they have a chance to turn their fates around on a million to one statistical odds. This doesn’t stop him from buying raffle tickets occasionally, though, especially when the prize is a good bottle of plonk and/or the beneficiaries’ cause is a good one.
  • This is a cracking picture. I think his name is Peter Egg and he’s a foodie: a London restaurant critic who is zealous about plant-based foods to the extent that the smell of animal products cooking now makes him gag. Restaurants where he dines now have to put him in a separate room and block the doorframe with towels and wet loo paper to stop the offending molecules reaching his nose. He thinks Boris is an execrable pig or walking pork roast. He has no chance of winning the Lottery as he never enters. It only penetrates his consciousness when he goes to the theatre and sees its logo at the bottom of programmes for plays it has funded.

Janet Bettesworth – Edinburgh Fringe, 2012

  • Dimitri Dennis Zabaroski. He won’t win. He doesn’t do Lottery. Hates the foreign man who won up the road… they should fuck off back home. (Both parents immigrated to Luton in the ’50s.) He works at car plant locally and knows a lot of foreign people abuse the system. Likes Prince Andrew and his confidence. Likes Borris and wants to have a flag pole outside his house with Farage and Union flag. Council refused planning application. All foreign.
  • This is Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge, known to his closest friends as 3Pee. He is a second cousin, once removed to Boris. He is immensely proud and fond of his childhood pal, with whom he roasted chestnuts and netted little jars of frogspawn when the families got together for camping trips. They frequently got their shorts mixed up, being almost identical in size and shape. They still swap Christmas jumpers, particularly the ones gifted by Rachel as she seems to find the ones with the rudest slogans… Piggott has enjoyed a varied career, which includes a brief spell as a fluffer in a Hollywood porn production company (he was sacked for making badly edited and shaky copies on his secret camera which discreetly attached to his paisley patterned cravat). He also worked as a rickshaw driver in Hong Kong, normally stationed outside the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon but few tourists engaged his services due to his extremely eccentric hats and comedy Chinese moustaches… He eventually made his fortune writing haiku messages predicting the purchasers’ marriage prospects onto extremely dark and gloomy canvases which sell for many dollars all over the USA. In his own way, therefore, he has already won the lottery so has no need to buy tickets on the weekly National Lottery, which he disdains with a passion – matched only by that of his antipathy to the unelected bureaucrats of the European Commission.

I contacted Janet, because I thought it would make an interesting blog to run her drawing of me with strangers’ character assessments of what this unknown person might be like.

But there was a snag…

She told me it was NOT a sketch of me at all: in fact, it was a sketch of her husband! She said he found the comments amusing – He does despise Boris Johnson, but he does do the Lottery.

Now Janet HAS included a sketch of me. Sadly with less interesting comments/suggestions. 

Does this Jewish man appreciate a good, well-shaped calf?

Her questions were:

  • What is his name?
  • His over-riding passion in life?
  • Way of dealing with problems? 

The responses include:

  • Manny Silverman. Loves small investments. Still dining out on making £35,000 on ‘Britcoin’ a couple of years ago. Cigars and coffee are how he copes with life’s complexities. Don’t mention the time he passed on Apple shares, though.
  • Godfrey was a prostate specialist and his hands could reach parts that others… but now volunteers at his local city farm delivering calves – His approach to life? He always gets stuck in and is happy to get his hands dirty
  • This is Howard Silver. He’s a nice East End Jewish boy now living in Southgate. He’s a life-long socialist and lives in a rented housing association flat that he got through Rachel, one of his cousins who works there. He doesn’t own anything, aside from the clothes on his back and a few sticks of furniture, all the books on Communism he’s read were borrowed never bought. He’s lifelong Labour, red through and through but was recently upset by the growing anti-Semitism in the party so he voted green for the first time ever in protest. He’s what Yiddish speakers would term a poor old nebbish.
  • His name is Frank Gibbins. He thinks that the world has become strange, impersonal and unnecessarily complicated… He seeks solace in the simplicity of nature and its instinctive laws, eg. the way that the ducklings follow the mother duck, the unquestioned authority of the silverback gorilla in setting the direction of his troop and keeping it in order… He likes to sit in the park for hours, observing the behaviour of humans as they centre themselves in selfies against the backdrop of the beautiful autumnal leaves or wander around oblivious to the creatures of the forest…Sometimes he’ll draw them in his book and imagine their thoughts.
  • Constantine Gras – because he looks the spit of a friend of mine called Constantine Gras. Well, what he’d look like in about 30 years. He’s tall – maybe 6’2. He’s an artist/filmmaker.
  • Who are these people? (Photograph: Jez Timms via UnSplash)

    Clive Earnshaw. Son of a bookkeeper and an apiarist, he has inherited a calm demeanour in all kinds of crisis situations, which served him well in his job as an emergency medical technician. His overriding passions in life are his sibling’s children, for whom he would do anything. His search for meaning led him to a retreat in the North African desert and he converted to the Sufic branch of Islam. His way of dealing with problems (apart from whirling) is to quote soothing aphorisms such as: This too will pass. He is deeply peaceful.

The trite lesson to be learned from all this?

People see totally different characters and backgrounds in exactly the same faces. Initial assumptions about people can – and very often are – wrong.

Peter Stanford’s view my sketch was:

  • This is Derek Milchman, a friend of No 30: that one which looks like him. They sometimes swap glasses and pretend to be each other. If this is a humorous book, with hilarious results; if a grim book, this leads to a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.

Janet replied: “I am not entirely in agreement. For students of phrenology and physiognomy, it may be observed that No. 30 has a receding jawline, whereas No. 39 has a protruding one. I do like the idea of a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.”

Comedy critic Kate Copstick, recognised me: “This is John Fleming!!!” And Peter Stanford asked Janet: “So what role are you going to give him in the novel?”

A “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait

She replied: “If you’re referring to the author of the Malcolm Hardee biography, the hands are too big and seem to be coated with some kind of white substance.”

Janet also told me that she had included a “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait – No 31 in the bunch.

And below are three more of her drawings.

Janet tells me: “I do two types of doodles – one where I’m basing it on a real person, and the other where I do random scribbles with my eyes closed, then a face gradually emerges out of the chaos, like seeing faces in the fire – that way is by far my favourite…”

One final comment and query from one of Janet’s Facebook Friends sums it all up, though: “I keep wondering why you’re writing a novel when you’re so ‘geniusly’ good at drawing – Or are you even better at writing?”

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Dreaming the start of a novel – not

Two or three days ago, I woke up at about 5 o’clock in the morning with the idea of a novel which was basically four or five real-life stories cobbled together into a narrative.

I thought about getting up and writing down the ideas but, instead, turned over on the floor and went back to sleep.

I was sleeping on the floor because I buggered my back about four weeks ago.

This morning, again at around 5 o’clock, I woke up with the same opening idea in my mind, minus the other stories.

I thought I had better write it down this time, so I did. 

I doubt if I will add to it because I’m useless without a deadline.

I don’t need a person from Porlock and I ain’t no Coleridge.

I don’t fancy the opium.

Especially as I had a blood test yesterday and that nurse sure needs more practice in how to stick a needle in someone’s arm.


CHAPTER 1

So there was this Irishman, a Dalek and four Scotsmen.

The Irishman was called Michael Julian Andrew Hardwick Bantam Smith. He was married with a younger wife, five children and a parakeet called Charlie.

He – Michael, not the parakeet – had been pushing the Dalek round the Scene Dock, a circular covered roadway that ran round the outside of the studios at BBC Television Centre in West London. He was clutching his stomach and standing half bent over, about to fall, because he had just been shot in the stomach.

The Dalek was a prop. Writer Terry Nation had described it, roughly, as a pepper pot with a sink plunger sticking out the front. BBC designer Raymond Cusick had refined the look and the Daleks became iconic villains in the Doctor Who TV series which, at that time, was fading in popularity. It would later be revived. Unlike Michael the Irishman.

One of the four Scotsman was called Jimmy the Joker. That was not his real name. The four Scotsmen had just robbed the cash office at BBC Television Centre. This was back in the day when people got paid weekly in cash. Jimmy the Joker had just shot Michael the Irishman by mistake. 

Out of the corner of his left eye, he had seen a Dalek suddenly appear into the Scene Dock through one of the open studio doors and some inexplicable reflex action had made his brain fire the Walther PPK hand gun at the human being beside it. It’s a Dalek! was all his brain had thought. Jimmy carried a Walther PPK because that was the gun James Bond used in the books and movies.

Michael the Irishman would die in an ambulance on the way to hospital twelve minutes later. His last words would be whispered urgently but inaudibly. When he was dead, the elder ambulance man would look at the younger ambulance man, shrug and start filling in a form.

Three of the Scotsmen running in Television Centre – including Jimmy the Joker – were dressed as policemen. Two were carrying large canvas mail bags filled with banknotes. Jimmy was carrying a gun. The fourth was dressed in ‘civvies’, carrying a lightweight video camera, apparently filming the other two. All four men wore clown masks.

They ran out of the scene dock and through the car park at the front of the building. People just looked at them with mild interest, thinking it was part of some new TV show. 

The uniformed security men at the front gate looked a little bemused, thought the same thing and stood aside to let the three policemen wearing clown masks – one carrying a gun – and the clown-masked man with the camera out into Wood Lane, the main road which ran past the studios. That was when the trouble really started.

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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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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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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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