Tag Archives: paranoia

Scottish comedienne Janey Godley is accused of having a secret life

Janey Godley and the letter from a non-fan

Ah! The joys of being a jobbing comedian with a big mouth…

My comic chum Janey Godley, whose latest London show was the subtly-titled Donald Trump Is A Cunt, has already incurred the Orange wrath of deranged Rangers fans.

Now she tells me that – before one of her recent shows in Paisley – a man was handing out sheets of paper to members of her audience.

The sheets (with spelling mistakes intact) read:


janey godley is employed by british intelligence

the purpose of this employment is to deceive and lie to the british public

she plays many roles, including janey godley, to take part in these frauds

the scale and scope of the lies and deception that take place in the public areas are too vast in scope to go into here and you would dismiss them out of hand as the ramblings of a madman, which you probably will anyway, but the purpose of this is to make you aware who you are seeing tonight, “janey” could give you a talk tonight that would shake you to your core and make you leave the theatre re-evaluating your understanding of the world we live in and your place in it, but she wont.

i believe “janey godley” to be a character played by an actress who is under the employment of british intelligence to carry our fake events in ther public arena for social and phsycological engineering purposes, i believe when we identify these people amongst us we must call them out for the liars they are so thats what im doing.


Ah! Freedom of speech is something to be cherished and encouraged.

The person who wrote that warning about Janey should stand for political office.

On current trends, they might get elected.

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Filed under Comedy, Psychology

The British comedian who battled anorexia and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act – and what God said

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

Juliette Burton in London yesterday

Juliette Burton in London yesterday

“Someone recently told me,” I said to comedian/actress Juliette Burton yesterday, “about a 26-year-old female comedian who was turned down by two major agents because she was too old. They wanted younger, inexperienced comedians who could be moulded by them. My reaction was: What does an 18 year-old know about except homework and things they’ve read in books?

“Most comedians I’ve met,” agreed Juliette, “need to have experienced the extremities of the experiences of life to have a slightly different take on things. I think anyone who’s been through some darkness in their lives… the only way you can come out the other side is to find comedy in some way. You have to have darkness to appreciate the light.

“For me, at the really dark times in my life, I discovered Monty Python and other things like The Muppets and Richard Curtis’ The Vicar of Dibley.”

On Saturday, I saw a preview of Juliette’s happy, life-enhancing Edinburgh Fringe show When I Grow Up in Stowmarket, Suffolk. Tonight, she performs the first of three previews at the Brighton Fringe.

Yesterday, I chatted to her as she passed through London on her way to Brighton.

“So you were sectioned under the Mental Health Act,” I said.

“Yes,” said Juliette. “I’d been in and out of clinics most of my teenage years. The first time I was sent to a clinic, I went in voluntarily… but, when I say voluntarily, it was because my parents wanted me to and I was very young. I was fifteen – my GCSE year. And then the next time I went into a clinic I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, which was involuntary. They turned up in an ambulance and took me away.”

“I went into a mental home when I had just newly turned eighteen,” I told Juliette. “They seemed to think it was a bad idea that I had tried to commit suicide. So going into a mental home was suggested as a good idea. I had taken an overdose, which was a silly idea because I had always been very bad at chemistry in school… What did they say was wrong with you?”

“They said I was a month away from dying,” Juliette told me. “It was anorexia… To be sectioned, you have to have five people who agree you are ‘a danger unto yourself or others’. And I was a danger unto myself.”

“I’ve seen your show,” I said. “You’re a danger unto others.”

“In a positive way,” Juliette laughed, “ I hope I’m dangerously fun now!… But my mother had to agree to me being sectioned. Definitely my doctor and then some other medical people and people close to me. Then, after a couple of weeks in that clinic, I had a psychotic episode.”

“What’s a psychotic episode?” I asked.

“I’m sure you know,” said Juliette. “but it’s kind of similar to schizophrenia and it can vary for different people. For me, it wasn’t brought about by drugs or induced in any other way, it was just down to the mental and physical stress that my body was under.

“I personally feel that I was so underweight and the stress of going into hospital and losing all control over my life and the stress of that… basically my mind decided to give up and I went off into various different experiences mentally, so I wasn’t really aware I was in the place I was in.”

“You were hallucinating?” I asked.

“It was… Yes…” said Juliette. “It’s really tricky, because the people I’ve met who have had similar experiences… It’s so… It’s difficult because obviously your body is present in that room in the hospital, but mentally you are elsewhere. It’s a bit philosophical, but who’s to say what’s actually going on? I had experiences of seeing things that weren’t there.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“Such as I saw God,” said Juliette. “And the Devil. And I saw angels.”

“What did God look like?” I asked.

Juliette was surrounded by white light

Juliette: a bright white light from God surrounded her

“I say I saw God because language is really limited,” explained Juliette. “Mentally, the way I processed it was I saw God. What I actually experienced was an intensely bright white light enveloping me, 360 degrees around me, and an overwhelming feeling of being unconditionally loved, like I’d been searching for all my life. Being completely safe and completely held. And I was aware of a figure but not aware of a face or anything distinct.

“I’m not saying this actually happened. It could be medically explained with chemicals. But my experience was that I remember asking God what the meaning of life was. And I remember being very disappointed with his answer, because I was expecting something deep and meaningful… I only got two words back – BE NICE – but, then, I think that is what all the major religions boil down to. And it’s the best moral code to live by.”

“I remember,” I said, “in the 1960s or 1970s someone took an LSD trip and saw God and realised what the meaning of life was, but he couldn’t remember what it was when he came down from his trip. So he decided next time he’d have a notepad and pen near him. He took another trip, saw God and again realised the meaning of life and wrote it down. When he came down again, he looked at the notepad and he had written: The smell of methylated spirits permeates the air…. What was the Devil like?”

“That appeared to me in shadows,” said Juliette. “I was aware I was in the room I was actually in but, in the shadows, there was some menacing form that was coming to get me… There was a time during that psychotic episode when I felt I was God. I thought I was in charge of the world. There was also a time when I thought that everyone in the hospital was talking about me, so that was more paranoia than anything.”

“Sounds more like what most performers hope for at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said.

“I was hearing voices,” continued Juliette, “telling me what to do. And that was also part of the psychosis. It only lasted three weeks, but I had an amazing adventure…”

“Definitely like the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said.

“I thought I was time travelling,” said Juliette. “I went back to the Victorian age, I was a little girl and I was aware of a father not being there and I was crying. Then I was in another time when women ruled the world. I could see very bright flowers and it was lush and green and I was a High Priestess and I remember lots of people turning to me for advice, which was lovely. Then another part of it was when I saw aliens, which was exciting.”

“And they looked like…?” I asked.

“Again, it’s the limitations of language,” said Juliette. “I saw blackness and there was a red laser and it was trying to communicate with me and I understood that to mean that an alien communicated with me. But all of that sounds completely mad and it was over ten years ago…”

“When I was in the mental home,” I said, “they gave me happy drugs. Did they drug you every night?”

“Every day when they could get me to take them.”

“Did they not force you?” I asked.

“I think they must have had to sometimes. But I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening.”

“They gave me drugs,” I said. “The drugs made me feel happy without wanting to be happy.”

“I was put on Prozac when I was sixteen,” said Juliette. “It was really too heavy for me. I felt like a zombie. Yes, you don’t have any major lows; but you also don’t have any highs whatsoever. So what’s the point of being alive if that’s all there is?

“Lots of the anti-anxiety medication that I’ve been given over the years I’ve found actually made me more anxious. The drugs I had at the time I was having the psychosis I think did bring me back down to earth but there were a few weeks where, although I knew who I was and where I was, the paranoia was still strong.

“I remember once being out in Marks & Spencer’s in Chelmsford and I suddenly had an attack where it was like picking up on frequencies and thinking everything everyone was saying was about me and about what I was doing and they were judging me.”

“The Edinburgh Fringe again,” I said.

VanillaSky_poster_Wikipedia

Never watch if having a psychotic attack

“Never watch the movie Vanilla Sky if you are in the middle of a psychotic episode,” advised Juliette, “On one of my weekends out of the clinic when I was past the worst of it but not quite fully grounded, I was allowed back to my parents and we watched Vanilla Sky, which really screwed me up and set me two steps back.”

“Chinese medicine,” I said, “tries to cure the cause, whereas Western medicine tries to hide the symptoms, like papering over the top of the cracks but not filling them in. Giving people drugs just papers over the cracks, doesn’t it? So have you just papered over the cracks?”

“I’m not on any medication at the moment,” said Juliette. “I think the NHS has improved a lot but, for me, the answer is almost never medication. You have to deal with the root cause which, for me, is anxiety and being able to accept the things I can’t change.

“When I was fifteen, I was under-eating, at seventeen, I was very under-eating. At nineteen, something changed. Within three months of my 19th birthday, I doubled my body weight and, within six months, I’d gone from a size 4 to a size 20.”

“What are you now?” I asked.

“I’m a size 8 so, if anyone would like to send me any dresses, particularly any French Connection dresses…

“Back then, it went from food being, in my mind, something I wasn’t allowed to touch to being something I over-indulged in. And that was all about control. Anorexia for me was about trying to retain control. And the compulsive over-eating was about me trying to avoid taking responsibility for life by losing control.”

“How old were you when you were sectioned?” I asked.

“I was seventeen. I spent my eighteenth birthday in the clinic.”

“And with you, why was your anxiety all about eating disorders?” I asked.

“Food is one of the few things in your life,” explained Juliette, “that you can have total autonomy over. For a long time, I used food as a solution – because, if you focus on the details of life, then you avoid the bigger picture. For me, at that time, I wasn’t ready to deal with the bigger picture. Over-eating and under-eating are just flip sides of the same coin. Different symptoms of the same core problem. All the psychological problems I’ve had have stemmed from anxiety.”

“And yet your show When I Grow Up” I said. “is jolly and enthusiastic and life-celebrating.”

Juliette Burton: happy and positive

Juliette Burton: happy & positive show

“Well,” said Juliette, “I hope it’s a positive, fun, uplifting show about me trying to be all the things I wanted to be when I was a child. So, in the last year, I’ve gone off and tried to be all the things I wanted to be when I was a kid – ballerina, baker, princess, pop star, artist, farmer and Muppet.

“I would really love people to see the show and feel positive. A lot of the stuff I’ve just spoken to you about is really dark and I have spent a long time turning into who I am now, but who I am now is somebody who desperately wants to make other people feel happy and connected and not alone. The only way I feel I can do that is though comedy and storytelling and taking people on a little escapist journey and come out the other side feeling Wow! I feel better about life.

“And people will go out with a smile on their face,” I said.

“Did you go out with a smile on your face, John?” asked Juliette.

“I did.”

“Awesome,” said Juliette.

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Filed under Comedy, Drugs, Food, Health, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology

The American comic with the 99 cent potential movie about online hysteria

Mike Player confronts the horrific possibilities of viral videos

Last month, I blogged about improvisational American comedian Mike Player’s Angry Daddies show at the Outlaugh Comedy Festival on the Hollywood Fringe.

“It went great,” he told me this morning from Los Angeles. “It was like giving birth to a two hundred pound baby. Surreal experiences got so crowded I had to sit on the floor. I hate sitting on the floor.”

I mentioned in my previous blog that Mike had written a book Out on the Edge: America’s Rebel Comics.

Now he has written a comedy/suspense novel Viral – The Story of the Milkshake Girl which sounds to me like it has movie potential.

What interests me is the price, though.

It is available as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk for 77p (or for 99c on Amazon.com).

This could be the future of publishing.

I have been thinking of issuing an eBook myself with a 99p price tag. But perhaps I would be over-pricing it!

Mike is a graduate of the Master Class of the UCLA Writers Program. He is also a graduate of the Warner Brothers Comedy Writers Workshop and was executive producer of MTV Logo’s 8-episode network series, Outlaugh Festival on Wisecrack. Mike is basically a Hollywood chap and he has, of course, got a good ‘elevator pitch’ for his Viral book:

Mike’s interestingly-priced cyberworld book

What if something you did got filmed and posted on the internet and you became FAMOUS and everyone hated you but you were FAMOUS and earning lots of MONEY, your life was threatened and you had to run away to protect your family?

What if you could have sex with anyone you wanted? Your phone was more powerful than the major broadcast networks and goats jumping on a trampoline got more views than the President’s State of the Union speech? What if you had to fight for your very life?

What is it like to become an overnight viral video star? Sixteen-year-olds become moguls and moguls fetch coffee… in the dark comedy suspense thriller VIRAL.

“This sounds not too far removed from a possible reality,” I suggested to Mike.

“Well, I read about Jessie Slaughter,” he told me. “It’s not her story, but she was a teen who had to go into the Witness Protection program because her internet doings got so out of control. Plus I have met a lot of crazy people working in TV and producing my own videos. I manage to get a lot of poison out of my system by writing comedy.”

“And writing the book?” I asked.

“Would you be only vaguely interested in removing a splinter from your forehead?” Mike asked.

“It seems to me an awful lot of supposed fiction is actually fact toned-down to be believable,” I said.

“A weird true thing I researched that’s actually in my book,,” Mike said, “is a kid who fell into a ditch in Colombia or somewhere and someone filmed it and posted it online. It got so popular the kid got a commercial deal out of it. And all he did was fall into a ditch.”

In the book, Iranian teenage foster girl Erika Moradi stands up for herself by swatting the milkshake out of the hand of a sexist bully in a Las Vegas high school and becomes famous in a fluke video as The Milkshake Girl.

As a result, she incites the wrath of her high school and the darker elements of online teen networks. Her home is vandalised and her life is threatened. She runs away and meets TV producer Jack Hawkins, who has lost his job on a network soap opera. He has several high concept series ideas involving some of the hottest viral stars of the moment – a trampolining goat, a gay Congressman and a Brazilian who fell into a ditch. But Erika becomes the most notorious.

“What’s a comedy person doing writing this paranoid dark stuff?” I asked.

“Well,” Mike told me, “it’s dark comedy suspense. All comedians love to go ‘dark’.”

“Is writing for print more satisfying than improvising live?” I asked Mike.

“In some ways it is,” he said, “because it lasts longer and people can’t throw things at you.”

“And what’s with the trampolining goat?” I asked.

“Every book should have a goat on a trampoline,” he replied.

I cannot disagree.

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Internet

North Korea – A land of nuclear bombs and satellite launches, but no electricity

North Korea reveals the face of the evil Americans

I look out of my hotel window in the early morning and see a Turner sunset with two tall Dickensian chimneys, a yellow golden sun, the indistinct nearby river and a bleak landscape in a misty, disfiguring white haze. It is The Fighting Temeraire with pollution. It is Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.

We are driven south in our coach on long, long, decidedly dodgy potholed-pitted roads to the DMZ – the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea. The countryside is eerily empty as we pass through it, as if all human life has been hoovered up by some giant alien vacuum cleaner.

I would like to come back here with a farmer who could explain what I am seeing. The barren brown supposedly agricultural land looks barren to me, as if the regime has over-farmed it or something, but I am no expert. To my inexpert eye, something has gone very wrong; no-one is farming the occasionally slightly-ploughed fields for mile after tens of miles.

If your land is devastated, you would normally invite in specialists with expert advice but North Korea is no normal country and has, I suspect, screwed itself.

On the one hand, they have lived in self-imposed isolation for decades. On the other hand, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung thought up his superficially-attractive philosophy of The Juche Idea.

This basically means the country and everyone in it should be self-reliant. But, this being North Korea – a land which is not of Planet Earth – the Juche Idea is counterbalanced (or negated) by the idea that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and subsequently his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and now the grandson the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un go round the country giving on-the-spot advice.

This is a paranoid country with a population indoctrinated since birth into worshipping – and that is not too strong a word – the ruling family. Nothing will happen until the current Leader comes to a factory or a field or a region and says, “I think we should produce more cabbages/paperclips/babies.” Once that is said, a plaque goes up commemorating the visit and (certainly in Kim Il-sung’s day) the fact that the Great/Dear/Supreme Leader gave on-the-spot advice.

How the advised people are going to produce more cabbages or paperclips, of course, is up to them. I imagine they can cope with the details of complying with any advice to have more babies.

But, for whatever reason, the countryside on the long, rough road to the DMZ at Panmunjom looks devastated. And this is dangerous.

North Korea had actual famine in the 1990s and currently the proud, independent nation which follows the Juche Idea of self-reliance and accepts no help from others, gets food aid from its arch-enemy the United States in return for (in theory) not furthering its nuclear ambitions and arsenal.

But picture a country with no real knowledge of how diplomacy, international relations or the outside world actually works. Picture this country with a devastated farming industry, a situation so desperate that they have to go ask their arch nemesis for help. This is a country whose leaders, if they have their noses tweaked or their pride dented even slightly more or unintentionally more, will react with sudden, unpredictable behaviour which is totally OTT. If they think they are being treated like children, they will react like children with no concept of any rules or what is a normal or balanced response.

On our way to Panmunjom, at about 10.30am, we are told that, this morning at 8.00am, North Korea successfully launched its rocket – the one the West thinks is a test for an ICBM – carrying what our young female guide called “our satellite number 3”.

At Panmunjom, next to a small block of gents and ladies toilets, up a slight slope, I see a tall man with his back to me facing a tree. It is evident he is pissing on the tree. A guard spots him. Two soldiers bring him back from the tree. Two non-uniformed men are called. They look shocked. The man’s Western tour guide is called. Much worried discussion ensues. The man looks slightly triumphant. They are standing perhaps 20 feet away from me. It seems, from talking to other people, that the man is an American.

In certain circumstances, it is possible to agree with the North Korean view that the Americans are, en masse, barking at the moon.

Eventually, as we are taken down to the actual border itself, the man seems to be let off with a severe reprimand. But I would pay to be a fly-on-the-wall when he tries to leave the country and the border guards go through his belongings.

At the border, things have changed slightly since I was here in 1986, but only slightly.

There are still three blue huts where peace negotiations have taken place since the early 1950s. In the middle of a central table in the middle hut, negotiations took/take place. The border runs through the middle of the table; the North Koreans sit on one side; the South Koreans/Americans sit on the other side. The huts are painted by the Americans. They are blue because that is the United Nations colour but, since I was here last, it is a slightly darker blue. Perhaps this has been dragging on for so long that they have forgotten why the huts are blue.

When I was here in 1986, opposite a large stone North Korean building, stood a small South Korean pagoda on the upper of level of which stood an American G.I. with what, I presumed, was a directional microphone. Today, the pagoda has been moved to the left (as seen from the North Korea side) and a large building erected to rival the North Korean building.

When I was here last time, the two sides had just finished a ‘flag war’. One side erected a giant flag pole with a giant national flag flying from it. The other side erected a taller pole with a bigger flag. The first side then erected an even bigger pole with an even bigger flag. And so on. And so on. Looking at the poles today, the North Koreans won the flag war.

Party people (a phrase which has different meanings in Manchester and North Korea) wear small flag badges with the Great Leader Kim Il-sung or, less often, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s face on them. The soldier designated to tell us the ‘truth’ at Panmunjom has a badge with two heads on it – both the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. This has more prestige and is, we are told, specially awarded.

I notice that our two North Korean guides wear single-head badges, but our driver wears a double-head badge.

We overnight at a hotel in the nearby town of Kaesong. The hotel has no hot water or electricity.

North Korea launched a satellite this morning, but the country’s agriculture system is medieval. They are proud yet have to accept food aid from their arch enemy America. On a hill overlooking the town of Kaesong is a gigantic bronze-coloured statue of Kim Il-sung. It is floodlit at night. But even the hotel which aims to impress foreigners has no hot water or electricity.

The older male North Korean guide tells me it is too cold in his room to sleep.

Earlier, when it was still daylight, he took us to a roundabout at a road junction to get a better view of the town. Before we crossed the wide road, he warned us: “Take care crossing the street because of the traffic.”

There was no traffic.

Giggles were stifled in the group.

You do not laugh at or with North Korea. This is a land without a comedy club and without a sense of humour.

Humour is a dangerous thing.

But the country has something else which, I think, will eat away at it.

Children sometimes wave at our coach as it passes by. This never happened in 1986. Coaches and people who were visibly foreigners were ignored.

Children who wave at coaches containing people who smile and wave back at them will grow up into adults still willing to believe all Western foreigners are devils. But imperceptible cracks will be inbuilt in their indoctrination. It is the start of a slippery slope.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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North Korea – George Orwell’s pyramid looms over the capital city Pyongyang

Big Brother really is watching over you

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WeSpeakNews and by the Huffington Post)

I left my Beijing hotel early this morning for a flight to North Korea and got caught in a traffic jam on one of the Chinese capital’s ring roads.

When I was in Beijing in 1984, the city had crowded streams of bicycles. Now it is all cars in wide multi-lane carriageways and flyovers in high-rise skyscraper surroundings which look like something from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

At Beijing Airport, we get on an ancient Tupolev aircraft – very noisy – staffed by ultra-neat North Korean air stewardesses, each in prim red jacket, white shirt and dark blue scarf – the colours of the national flag.

When I entered the aircraft’s cabin, there was an overwhelming smell of air freshener. About 45 minutes into the flight, it became obvious why. The smell of air freshener had disappeared and the natural odour of the aircraft had reasserted itself: a rather unsettling smell of petrol fumes. It is difficult to say which was more unsettling: the smell of petrol or the saccharine-drenched music coming out of the aircraft’s not-very-good speakers. It was like easy listening to Nelson Riddle music in a flying petrol station.

But the North Koreans were trying their best. And that is all anyone can do.

When I was in China in the mid-1980s, some of their new hotels were run as joint ventures with Swiss companies on ten-year contracts. At the end of that time, everything would to revert to the Chinese. So they had ten years learning what specific items and what standards were expected by Western tourists. The North Koreans, in self-imposed exile from the rest of the world for generations, have no idea what goes on beyond their borders and little idea of what travellers expect.

When our group arrived in Pyongyang (you can only travel to North Korea in supervised groups, only rarely as a supervised individual), the people who had paid extra for single rooms (including me) found that there were no single rooms available and we had all been bumped down to a less-good hotel. But the North Koreans were trying their best.

There are so many people in North Korea for the celebrations of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday that, surreally, Pyongyang has a shortage of hotel rooms. The British tour company Regent Holidays, which normally takes only occasional single groups into the country currently has four groups in simultaneously for the celebrations; a Swedish company has brought a total of 200 people in several groups.

Each group allowed into the country has to have two North Korean ‘guides’ and a driver constantly with them. This is not only so that the untrusted foreigners are carefully supervised, watched and reported-on by the two guides, but so that each guide can keep a careful watch on the other guide. When I was here in 1986, it slowly became obvious that the bus driver out-ranked the two guides and was himself there to watch and report-on them.

North Korea is not a country where paranoia is under-stated.

But people are people. Insecure, internally modest. No-one chooses which country they are born into. People are people. There is nature v nurture but neither is 100% of anyone. People are people.

Our group of 16 individuals is supervised by two individual North Korean guides: one an experienced older man, the other a relatively inexperienced younger girl.

If the two guides and the driver all keeping a wary watch on each Western tourist and on each other seems oppressive, think of the individual psychology. With this level of paranoia, there is a personal insecurity which is occasionally visible in the eyes of the guides and most of the North Koreans we encounter (except, oddly, the driver). What if they do something wrong? What – even worse – if they do not do something wrong but someone higher than them in the paranoia chain mistakenly thinks that they have done something wrong? This is not a forgiving country. They have been at war with the Americans and the South Koreans since 1950.

The Korean War ended in 1953. But only in theory. In March 2010, a North Korean miniature submarine torpedoed and sank the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. In November 2010, the North Korean army bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong with around 170 artillery shells, hitting both military and civilian targets, killing 4 people and injuring 19.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the basic necessities of the state of Oceania is that it has to be constantly at war with one of the two other great super-states. A very real external threat is vital to hold the country together. Oceania and North Korea seem to be interchangeable in this respect.

In the fields of North Korea – glimpsed through bus windows on very uneven roads – people are rarely cultivating the barren-looking land. When they do, they almost never have mechanised help; they rarely even have oxen and hand ploughs. They seem to till the soil with their hands. Individuals sitting in brown earth fields.

This is not a 21st century state. This is not a 20th century state. This is like England under the rule of Richard III. We are talking here about medieval countryside scenes.

But, in the capital Pyongyang, the monuments have got even bigger than they were in 1986. Wide avenues, imposing monuments, monolithic buildings

There is a new road with unnecessarily massive monumental buildings for different sports. A giant basketball building. A giant table tennis building. A whole street of buildings for different sports. Gigantic buildings with massive car parks. In a city with very few cars.

There are new tower blocks of apartments. Everything looks stylish on the outside. Our decidedly underwhelming hotel has underfloor heating (which cannot be turned off) but currently has no hot running water.

The invisible building, as seen a few years ago

And, towering over everything, is a giant pyramidal building, massively out-of-proportion to everything else. It is an unfinished 1o5-storey hotel – the Ryugyong Hotel – which the North Koreans started to construct in 1987 – exactly 25 years ago – but never completed. It looks perfect on the outside but it is a showy facade, like a simile for North Korea itself.

The giant 330-metre tall building was due to open in 1989 with either 3,000 or 7,665 rooms (facts are variable in North Korea). For several years after it failed to open, North Korea denied the building existed, despite the fact it dominated the skyline. Now, 25 years after work started on the structure, it is the elephant in the room; never mentioned but ever present.

“It is an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete rising 300 metres into the air, containing over 3000 rooms above ground.”

That is not a description of the gigantic grey pyramidal would-be hotel which dominates the Pyongyang skyline.

It is George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But it will do.

It will do.

Welcome to North Korea.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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Filed under China, North Korea, Politics, Travel

There are some nasty people in comedy …Is Lewis Schaffer one of them?

For a short period last night, I thought I was going to write a vitriolic blog today, but then I remembered some advice I gave to a comedian several years ago.

Last night, I was invited to an event organised by a comedy company. I arrived. I could not get in. I had the invitation in my hand. It was bad PR. Especially as I bear the company no good will. They have a surprisingly good reputation considering the guy who runs it is a vicious, amoral little shit.

I thought. That will make a good blog. I will slag ‘em off. I will tell tales.

But then I decided not to. And not for legal reasons. No. I decided not to because I remembered my advice to the comedian.

A few years ago, this comedian wanted, very justifiably, to bitch online about another (in my opinion clinically psychopathic) comedian.

My advice was: “Don’t name the other person. If you name the other person in print, it just gives them publicity. Even if you slag off the person with a very good story, people will remember the name attached to the story longer and stronger than the actual shittiness of the story you are telling them. If you name the person in print, you would just be raising their profile.

“It’s like most TV commercials. They cost zillions and they’re very visual but, basically, all they are really trying to do is impress the product’s name on punters’ brains so that when people go into a shop and see four brands, one of the brands’ names will feel more familiar to the punters than the other three.

“They could put the name of the company up there on screen in black letters on a white background for 30 seconds without music and it would have much the same effect for less money.

“All publicity is good publicity unless it involves a sex crime.”

There are some nasty people and companies in comedy, but there is no point naming them in print because it would simply increase the people’s profile and the companies’ macho standing.

At one Edinburgh Fringe, I paid at the box office of a venue to buy a full-price ticket for a highly-regarded comedian’s show. Instead of giving me a ticket in return for my money, the guy at the box office picked up a half-price newspaper voucher for the show, tore it in half, kept one half and gave me the other half. He had a pile of these half-price vouchers. My assumption was and is that, when giving the comedian a percentage of the box office returns, the venue was skimming off money claiming that a lot of tickets were being bought at half price when, in fact, the full price had been paid.

On another occasion, someone was opening up a new comedy club in a city (not London) and, for some reason, asked the advice of the owner of a competitor club. The competitor had had a vicious long-running feud with a particular comedian. “You don’t want to book XXXX XXXX,” he told the new club owner. XXXX XXXX’s an alcoholic. Unfunny. Unreliable. An alcoholic.” The guy knew that, in fact, the award-winning, highly reliable comedian was a non-drinker. But it was a double whammy. Bad advice to the other club. Damaged the comedian.

If you name the baddies in print, though, it simply publicises them.

The point is that, last night, instead of attending the event I had been asked and invited to attend, I went off in a huff (or it might have been a minute and a huff) to see American comedian Lewis Schaffer‘s rolling Free Until Famous show which, I knew, started at the same time and was only a three-minute walk away.

Look, “a minute and a huff” was funny when Groucho Marx said it.

Maybe it has dated badly.

Anyway, last night’s show was bizarre even by Lewis Schaffer’s high standards of oddity.

In the full-house audience, for one thing, were two Italian students studying comedy in Britain. Quite what they learned from a night of titters with Lewis Schaffer, I don’t know. But, after the show finished, he stayed behind with them and seven others for a special re-telling of his “award-winning Holocaust joke”.

It took 20 minutes.

The translations did not speed things up.

But it was the funniest part of the evening.

Afterwards, in his traditional after-show Soho ice cream parlour, I told Lewis Schaffer (always include both names when referring to him) about my non-vitriolic upcoming blog.

“There is no point quoting names,” I said to him. “All publicity is good publicity, right?”

“That’s what I told the captain of the Costa Concordia after it hit the rocks,” he replied.

“Mmmm…” I said.

“Look,” he said. “Never say bad things about anything or anyone. It comes back to bite you. You think you’re beating up a nobody but he’s got a million friends and one day you’re gonna need the guy. The key thing is that, if you trash one person, everybody thinks you will trash them too. They think, Well, he’s going to say bad things about me too.

“I’ve made enemies in this country,” he continued, warming to the self-criticism, as he always does. “I’ve only been here 11 years and already people hate me. I’m not even being paranoid. I don’t think people like me.

“Every day, I have a fight with someone. Every day, there’s somebody I’m really, really angry with and I wanna go on Twitter and every five minutes say something bad about the guy. But, as soon as I write my first Tweet, I realise it makes me seem like a twat.”

“Ah!” I interrupted him. “What did you say that venue owner in Edinburgh called you?”

“She called me a dreadful, dreadful man,” he replied, perhaps slightly irritated at having his flow of self-criticism interrupted.

“Why did she say that?” I asked.

“Because she’s a friend of my ex-wife and refused to listen to my side of the story about how horrible my ex-wife was… If my ex-wife was horrible at all… She’s probably no more horrible than any woman and…”

“Ah!” I interrupted him again, “On stage tonight, you joked that you’re trying to get away from racism in your show. You want to put in more misogyny.”

“Because there’s a bigger market for it.” Lewis Schaffer explained, exasperated, “Maybe I’m the horrible one. Maybe that’s the problem… But women stick together like a Romanian village. They fight with each other to the death until someone from a neighbouring town comes in. Then they just join together to… I dunno, they’re just horrible people – women. They’re loyal. I respect them for that. They’ll stick up for each other.

“My problem,” Lewis Schaffer mused, “is I’m not nice enough to be nice and I’m not nasty enough to be nasty.”

“Nice sentence,” I said. “What does it mean?”

“It means I’m… It means… For someone who people think of as a strong personality, I’m like white bread.”

“Mmmm…” I said.

“I don’t know what it means. What d’you think it means?” Lewis Schaffer asked me.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “You’ll figure it out eventually.”

“You’re not going to get anything out of this for your blog,” Lewis Schaffer told me.

“I dunno,” I said.

“I know,” Lewis Schaffer said.

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My brief encounter in Beirut with a man from the Syrian Army

Once, when I was working for the Discovery Channel, I had to make a TV trailer for a rather suspect documentary on the Waffen-SS.

I say ‘suspect’ because it started off with the words:

“The Waffen-SS is renowned throughout the world for its efficiency…”

Yes. I thought. Yes, but… and it is a very big But.

These last few months, I have been reminded of that by the Syrian Army’s wide-ranging put-down of the Syrian uprising. Very efficient. But…

I only had one encounter with the Syrian Army.

I visited Lebanon at the very end of 1993, almost four years after the Lebanese Civil War had sort-of ended. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I had tried to combine my trip to Lebanon with a visit to Syria to see the ruins of Palmyra but the Syrians had refused me an entry visa without explanation. My passport said my occupation was “writer” which probably did not help, though this had proved no problem in Albania  under Enver Hoxha nor in North Korea under the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

In Beirut at that time, there were still Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ troops manning occasional sandbagged emplacements at crossroads and roundabouts.

Beirut was a strange city. At rush hour time, there were traffic jams of Mercedes-Benzes – almost all the taxis were Mercedes Benz. Money was flooding back into what had been the banking centre of the Middle East. You could walk along a street and it would seem perfectly normal and peaceful. But you could turn a corner and there would immediately be two or three blocks of burnt-out, bombarded skeleton buildings, utterly devastated, like visions of Berlin in 1946. You could not go up those streets nor into the buildings because there were mines and unexploded shells.

This is an extract from my diary.

FRIDAY 7th JANUARY 1994 – BEIRUT

I have a sneaking feeling we are the only guests in this hotel. We never see anyone else at breakfast. Never share lifts with anyone. The room next to us, where we heard a loud argument late one night, has no beds. I just looked in. Just two sofas.

The Syrian soldiers have no problem with accommodation. No tents on the wet ground for them. They just live in some of the skeleton buildings. We saw them camp-bedded in the Hotel St-Georges yesterday and, round the corner from our hotel, they are living in three storeys of a burnt-out building – usually we see some playing cards at a table on the first floor. No walls, of course. Like several around here, it is a building reduced to a vertical grid of open-fronted concrete boxes.

Nearby, there is a sandbagged emplacement in the middle of a junction at the far side of which is a Kentucky Fried Chicken/Baskin Robbins emporium in all its plastic red, white and pink glory. Two soldiers with machine guns stand inside the ring of sandbags, which has a little metal roof over it. There are usually at least three other soldiers standing around, looking in different directions, either in the roadway or on the surrounding pavements or both. Yesterday, there were five soldiers and a lorry. They do not seem trigger-happy; but they seem alert.

Today, a man on the seafront pavement saw the Pentax camera hanging over my shoulder, half-hidden under my arm, and decided to shake my hand.

“Welcome to Lebanon!” he said.

I thought he did this to practice his English but, eventually, he invited me over to buy a tea from his van. It was impressive to see Lebanese entrepreneurial skills re-emerging.

As he made the offer, a military jet flew low overhead and a couple of klaxoned motorbikes ee-aw-ee-aw-ee-aw-ed out of a junction, leading a four-car convoy and, a little later, a couple more jet fighters flew over and round in a complete circle.

On Tuesday, I was woken up by the sound of two jets flying fast and low one after the other.

I walked down as far as the Summerland Hotel – which I knew for its peach melba, chattering American financier, vast swimming pool and supermarket. A man with a Buick told me his sister had bought a nearby flat for $750,000.

I looked at my map for directions and left the Summerland Hotel for the city centre but a gent in front of me pointed out that two soldiers behind me wanted me to stop. These two soldiers – then a third – then a fourth – then a fifth – wanted to see what I was reading. None of the five could speak any English or French at all. But they wanted to know if I had been taking any photographs. (My Pentax was over my shoulder; the smaller Minox camera was invisible in my pocket.)

They wanted to know where I got the map. I had bought it from a shop in one of Beirut’s main streets. Fortunately I still had it in the paper bag and could point at it. They did not seem to have seen any map nor knew one existed. They were not content. I showed them my passport, which the soldier in charge (in his twenties) did not really understand. He was more interested in my Middle East Airlines ticket stub. He must have read the Arabic on the back of the stub about four times at various points. It says (in multiple languages):

“Kindly reconfirm your reservation between 10 and 3 days before date of departure to guarantee your seat. Otherwise your reservation will be cancelled.”

This fascinated him so much we all went over to a guard post, then into an open area between two nearby buildings. I explained my week of merry jaunts around Lebanon by pointing to the days in my diary. But he was more interested in three Daily Telegraph Holiday Offer coupons I had torn out for a friend. They showed drawings of an aircraft, a cruise ship, a sun, a family and a bar code. He looked through these slowly twice.

As he was doing this, I palmed something else that was in my diary – a letter from a friend in Norfolk who sends letters/parcels to a ten year old girl in Beirut. It read:

“If you really want to live dangerously in Beirut, the address to seek out is (and it gave the girl’s name and address). Her dad was a policeman in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces so TAKE CARE!

I thought it wise to palm this even though, clearly, none of the soldiers understood English.

By this time, a Syrian Army Intelligence officer in civilian clothes had been brought over to our group. He was older, maybe mid-40s, and very relaxed. He also understood and spoke basic English.

We went through the map, photos etc again. He seemed to have been told the soldiers saw me taking photos which, ironically, I had not been. He, too, seemed surprised I had a map. He asked more detailed questions – or, rather, I volunteered information – travel agency in Beirut, hotel, route, the diary again.

All those many TV years of obsequious amiability, smiling, wittering and keeping calm came to fruition. If you can tell children and parents their appearance on national TV has been cancelled, then gents with battledress toting Kalashnikovs are less of a worry.

But only slightly.

The Intelligence man asked me:

“What is your job?”

“I write for children,” I told him, on the basis this had done me no harm in (an even dodgier country which shall be nameless until next year) and my visa said ‘Writer’ but I did slightly worry that the Syrians had refused me a visa.

“Mmmm…” the Intelligence man said.

The main military man went off with my passport and the Beirut travel agent’s card. I was left alone with Intelligence man in civilian clothes and a very young soldier fiddling absentmindedly with the trigger of his Kalashnikov. He could shoot his own ear off I thought.

“Are you in Lebanon with others?” the Intelligence man asked.

“One other person.” I replied. “I think he is still asleep back at the hotel.”

I was in obsequious/amiable chatting mode.

The Intelligence man had come back to Lebanon from the US one year ago. He was not surprised a flat in this neighbourhood went for $750,000. I asked how much flats in the building to our right would cost. He said about $400,000 with three bedrooms.

He was polite, amiable and smiling. But sometimes, when I was not looking at him directly, his smile would drop a little.

“Your British Foreign Secretary Mr Hurd went from Beirut to Israel this week. What do you think of the Israeli-Arab problems?” he asked me, then realised it was too blatant a question and back-tracked.

The main soldier came back.

They took me into a tent in the ground floor of the house to our left and we went through the map again.

I showed them my route.

“What photographs have you taken today?”

I could not remember anything except the devastated Holiday Inn area by the sea (not a good thing to mention) so I said Martyr’s Square and pointed it out on the map.

None of them (about five) had heard of Place des Martyrs/Martyr’s Square, the main – indeed only big – square in the city; and they had difficulty looking at the map and figuring out where it was in town.

You would think soldiers could read a map and would know the local layout, I thought.

It was around this time they started mentioning you need a licence to shoot film.

“You need a licence to shoot film,” I was told. “Do you have one?”

“No.”

In fact, this cannot be true and, indeed, I have always carried the Pentax in full view (though mostly using the Minox).

Yesterday, a soldier saw the Pentax over my shoulder

“You cannot take film here,” he said. “Bombs… Boom!” He pointed at the ground. “Not here. Poof!…Bombs!… Boom!”

But he never said I needed a licence to film.  I presume today they were trying to intimidate me.

I had been offering to take the film out of the camera and give it to them and they now decided I had to… take the film out of the camera and give it to them.

I could not remember what was on the film – possibly photos of the bombed American Embassy, the Holiday Inn, the Hotel St-Georges and the bay by these hotels.

I dabbled with the idea of opening the back of the camera, then unspooling the film for them, but figured it would be too obvious I was destroying the pictures I had taken. So I just rewound it and gave them the film as it was. Assuming they would not develop it by 0730 tomorrow anyway (my take-off time).

Everything was very relaxed after that. I was at my most obsequiously polite.

The Intelligence officer and the main soldier took me outside. I thanked the soldier three times for his politeness. The Intelligence officer said, “I hope you understood it is a difficult time… only for security reasons… A difficult time… very sensitive… for the country’s security and your own… A difficult time.”

I assume it was just a Jobsworth affair with the soldiers trying to get brownie points from their superiors for being alert to security dangers.

They had not searched me. If they had, they would have found the Minox camera and four new rolls of film in my trouser pockets.

When I left, I walked back to my hotel and switched on the BBC World Service, which was transmitting a report on the Jewish community in Cuba, with various Jewish songs being sung. I decided to switch it off.

Later, I went out and bought Tuesday’s Arab Times, which bills itself as “The First English Language Daily in Free Kuwait”. It reports that, on Monday, the day we were in Tyre and Sidon in South Lebanon, “Guerrilla factions in South Lebanon went on maximum alert in a pre-emptive move designed to avert Israeli strikes expected to accompany the forthcoming Syrian-American summit scheduled for mid-January.”

The Arab Times went on to report that, on Monday, the Israelis (via their ‘South Lebanon Army’ militia) “carried out a reconnaissance by fire tactic at 9.00am by firing six 120mm mortar rounds at a hill overlooking the southern Lebanese market town of Nabatiyey.”

What an interesting use of the word “reconnaisance” I thought.

They are all mad.

All sides.

Everything is out of control.

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