Tag Archives: philosophy

How to build a career in comedy (and other industries)… maybe or maybe not

Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, a Roman road map

Someone once said to me that he thought most criminals were doomed to fail and jail because they had no plan.

He was a criminal himself.

Had been.

He had stopped.

“If you gamble and flounder around and you have no plan,” he said, “you’re a mug.”

I paraphrase the words. But the thoughts are his.

“Most criminals,” he told me, “don’t have an aim. They don’t have a specific number they want to reach. If you want to make a million quid or half a million, you can very possibly do that. It’s like gambling. If you are determined and you take enough risks, you may well do it. But, once you get there, you should stop.

“There’s the risk of getting caught, the risk of going to prison, the risk of losing the gamble. And the longer you go on, the more the odds are against you. Most criminals don’t put a number on what they want, so they can never reach it.

“If you have no aim – if you just keep doing the same thing over and over again and don’t have no exit strategy, you’re a mug. You are treading water and you will run out of luck. It will all come crashing down on your head.”

I think you probably stand a greater chance of making a million from crime than from gambling with the odds in Las Vegas but, that aside, he has a point.

Without an aim, you go off in all directions and get nowhere.

And, of course, once you have achieved your aim, you need to know what your next aim is.

What brought this to mind was someone at The Grouchy Club this week who asked for tips about getting on in the comedy business.

I think one thing is to have a very specific three-year or five-year aim. And, indeed, ten and twenty year aim. Have a specific aim. You do not want to start by thinking about what your first Edinburgh Fringe show is going to be next year. You want to think where you want to be in three or five years time. And then in ten. And then in twenty. Then work backwards and figure out a roadmap for getting there, starting with wherever you are now.

Today is ground zero.

Whatever happened in the past has been passed. You can’t change the past.

Today is ground zero.

You do not just take a first step without knowing exactly where you want to end up.

If you want to get from London to Aberdeen, you should not just go into the first railway station you find and get onto the first train that leaves and focus your entire mind on which chocolate bar you are going to buy for the journey. You should be thinking about how to get to Aberdeen; not taking a random step and focusing on the detail without knowing where you are going.

If you don’t know the longer-term aims of your short-term actions, you risk just floundering around from random pillar to random post.

You have to be able to take advantage of accident and happenstance and side-turnings along the way of course but, again, without knowing the ultimate destination you want to reach in three, five, ten and twenty years, you risk not going or getting anywhere.

It is like writing a comedy show. If you don’t know what your show is about, you will be adrift in a sea of good ideas, unable to decide which ones to choose, unable to fit them all into an ever-changing shape that doesn’t exist. You should – in my easily-ignored opinion – not start with 1,001 amorphous good ideas and then try to figure out how to fit them all into some unknown shape illustrating nothing. You should start with the shape, then work back to the details you need to complete the shape.

You may have lots of colourful, differently-shaped pieces which individually look interesting but, if they don’t fit together, you ain’t got a jigsaw. You need to know the picture on the jigsaw you are making, then find the pieces that will fit together to create it.

With a show, in your own mind, you should have an elevator pitch. Decide what you want to create the show about. Then describe it in 10 or 12 words. Then, when writing the show, use only anecdotes, gags and thoughts that illustrate or illuminate those 10 or 12 words. Throw out anything else.

If you have some startlingly original, stunningly funny story – the most brilliant story or thought in the entire history of the world – which does not fit into that 10 or 12 word description, DO NOT use it. It will distract the audience, screw-up the flow and fuck-up your show. You can use this item of sheer genius on another occasion. The number of waffly, amorphous, don’t-hold-together hours of meandering shows I have sat through at the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t bear thinking about.

If you cannot think of a 10 or 12 word description of the show you are obsessed by and keen to do, then you don’t have a show. You just want to be acclaimed for being yourself, not for creating something. DO NOT imagine you have a show. DO NOT throw your money away waffling at the Edinburgh Fringe. The funniest 3 or 6 minute story in the world, if irrelevant, will screw-up a show not make it better. Ten stories are not a show. Not ten random 6-minute unconnected shows with no flow. If it don’t flow, it ain’t a show. Ten stories all illustrating a single elevator pitch point ARE a show.

Of course – of course – of course – the irony is that I never had a plan in my career(s) or in my life. But that is because I am and always have been a nihilist. All of the above is just filling in time. It all ends when the Sun expands and explodes and takes everything with it – our long-forgotten skeletons or ashes or worm-excreta and everything else. It all becomes space dust floating in infinity.

So it goes.

When, at last, you are unable to close your eyes and all you hear is the sound of your own death rattle… all that matters is memories of love and/or genuine friendship.

But – hey! – if you are a performer, ego and acclaim are what really matter.

So have a plan for success. A very well-worked-out plan. Work out what you want in the long term, then work backwards to what you should be doing in the short and medium term to achieve that.

Have an elevator pitch of 10 or 12 words about what you want to achieve in life as well as what your show will be about. Don’t flounder. Follow the plan. Though allow for advantageous side roads.

Have a 10 or 12 word outline for your show.

Have a 10 or 12 word outline for your life.

And don’t blame me when it all goes arse-over-tits.

I know nothing.

I have never claimed I did.

I am just filling in time.

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It Might Get Ugly – Karl Schultz loves comic Janey Godley but not milk toast

Karl Schultz

Karl Schultz with his latest haircut & thoughts

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog chat with comics Karl Schultz and Joz Norris about their annual charity gig in aid of Karl’s charity. After Joz left, I kept on talking to Karl.

“You’re all about re-invention,” I said. “you’ve had a lot of different haircuts this year.”

“I get bored,” replied Karl. “I’m trying to think of different ways to change Matthew Kelly.”

“Are you still doing that Matthew Kelly character?” I asked. “I thought you had finished with it.”

“I’ve been doing it again recently, after a year of It Might Get Ugly.”

It Might Get Ugly was/is a series of comedy evenings organised by Karl in which performers have to go on stage and tell totally true 15-minute stories about themselves.

“You had Janey Godley on the show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe,” I said.

“She,” said Karl, “was my favourite thing about Edinburgh. She’s got thousands of just amazing stories. What can you not like about her? I love Janey. She’s a comic who can handle anyone and she won’t be precious. She is so great. I can imagine her being an amazing actor. I fell in love with her the way I fell in love with David Mills when he first did it.”

“Very different comics,” I said. “What were you like when you started performing comedy?”

“When you start,” said Karl, “it comes as a shock. I was about 19 the first time I performed and you’re in this big nervous energetic space. It was like a heightened reality. I was thinking faster. I had different conversations going on in my head – what I was saying and what I was thinking – almost like Eskimo singers.”

“Eskimo singers?” I asked.

“Hitting different octaves,” replied Karl. “Then years go by and, even though you might be constantly surprised, shock doesn’t visit you as much. I believe shock is way more important to growth than something being ‘moving’. A moving gig is either good or bad, but a gig that shocks you has real impact.

“After four years of doing Matthew Kelly, I found that I wasn’t writing as much material as I should have. I had a bit of material but was improvising the whole time and Improv often stands for impoverished as much as improvised.”

“But you are continuing the character?” I asked.

Karl as his character 'Matthew Kelly’ with some Chinese fans

Karl as his character ‘Matthew Kelly’ with some Chinese fans

“Yes,” said Karl. “What I’m enjoying with Matthew Kelly at the moment is playing with biographies. There is the character as himself. There’s Matthew Kelly telling stories about me when I was younger, almost as if Karl Schultz was the character. Then there’s me as Matthew Kelly, talking about experiences I have had as the Matthew Kelly character. And then there’s the sort of philosophy behind the whole thing. But it’s complicated to do that.

“I had this idea a couple of months ago… When you wake up, it takes you a couple of seconds to find yourself and I was obsessing over that and the idea that the day is a parasite and you, in that moment of awakening, are the host. So the parasite of the day lives through you as the host. It’s not comedic in itself, but I thought Matthew Kelly could be the day having fun on someone. It’s like a playful parasite. Even if I don’t communicate it to the audience, that can be what motivates the character.

“In a very American way, I subscribe to the idea of personal growth and the idea that a young artist should be trying to move his brain forward. That’s partly why I do all these different things: as a vehicle to move my personal philosophy forward.”

“What,” I asked, “helps you do that?”

“More than anything,” said Karl, “making mistakes and owning up to them. Nothing undermines something difficult to face up to more than accepting it. If you think: I am going to be visited-upon by dark clouds in my mind… If you can accept that, it completely undermines it.

Karl Schultz deep in thought

Karl Schultz is not going to Switzerland soon

“Two days ago, I had a dark night of the soul on the District Line between Temple and Bow stations and the way I got through that was just by accepting it. All the credence I wanted to give to those imaginings of trips to Switzerland… it was undermined.”

“Trips to Switzerland?” I asked.

“Well,” said Karl, “you know…”

“Oh,” I said, “Exit. So why did you start It Might Turn Ugly?”

“I wondered if I could create a performance space where you are watching someone do something that might move them forward and you are watching that play out. I told people: Fifteen minutes. No ‘material’. Try to be honest. The idea is that you should not be able to do it the next night.”

“What,” I asked, “did you want to be when you were aged 16? A novelist?”

“No. I wanted to be Nick Drake. If I hadn’t been a comedian, I would have been some jazz-inflected folk guitarist. I used to play guitar for about 8 or 10 hours a day.”

“Nick Drake is like Joe Meek,” I suggested. “More of a cult than generally famous.”

“Everyone wants to be a more famous version of their hero,” said Karl.

“So are you trying to fit musical styles into comedy?” I asked.

Karl Schultz: one of his more understated stage performances

Karl Schultz: one of his more understated stage performances

“I think my thing is just the life I had. Being an only child, moving every three years.”

Karl’s father was a Salvation Army officer and moved location throughout the world every three years.

“Having different voices in different groups,” said Karl. “That’s my thing. Having an assimilative personality where I can change my accent. I’ve had many different accents. Negotiating and reconciling.”

“Fitting into things you don’t naturally fit into?” I asked.

“Trying to make things fit,” suggested Karl. “I’m obsessed with reconciliation. If you have an early life like I had, it can be very confusing, so you try to make sense of it, which might lead you towards philosophy, poetry and so on. What is very attractive about prosodic things is finding disparate meanings but bringing them together, making them work. Something like Matthew Kelly is synesthetic – it is supposed to be.”

“You want everything to be ordered?” I asked.

“No. Not at all.”

“You want everything to be ordered even though your act is surrealism and anarchy?” I tried.

“My act is not anarchic,” said Karl. “It’s surreal in the sense of being unreal. I take ‘surreal’ to mean dreamlike and what I’m really obsessed with is that type of hypnagogia.”

“Hypno-what?” I asked.

Karl Schultz tattoo

Karl’s tattoo – a hypnagogic fantasy of a dodo with flamingo’s wings and peacock’s feathers

Hypnagogia,” Karl explained, “is that state between wakefulness and being asleep where, as a child, you can just as easily be talking to your mother as a figure in a dream.”

“And,” I suggested, “you can know you’re dreaming yet think it might be real?”

“Yes. It’s a bizarre state. You only have to read anything Oliver Sacks has ever written about memory to know that you can appropriate memories, which is terrifying.”

“I remember,” I said, “being in a pram in Campbeltown where I was born, but I don’t know if I really remember it or if it’s something my mother told me about.”

“Everything for me,” said Karl, “is like a palette where you just play out ideas and let them run.

“What I’m obsessed with at the moment is neurophilosophy and the idea that, since the advent of cognitive science, our understanding of consciousness has moved on and so the language – the lexicon of philosophy – should catch up. What we know has moved on, but our language hasn’t. I think that’s exactly the same with comedy. It feels like we’re using Saxon language. We end up inventing words like dramady which is horrible.”

“What did you study at university?” I asked.

“Philosophy, but I was a real philosophy student in that I was a drop-out. I went off to become a comedian aged 20.”

“At least you didn’t study comedy,” I said. “I get twitchy when people think they can learn comedy.”

“Someone who’s a writer,” said Karl, “told me the other day: I knew more about writing before I started. Getting a degree in maths means that you are just as aware of how much you don’t know – and that’s the real education.

“When I came into comedy, I thought someone was going to go: Well done. Go to Level 2. I thought there were hierarchies and pyramids. But then you realise: Oh! It’s just a common room! You end up meeting the producers and commissioners and you can either have a really nice time with them or think they are milquetoast.”

“Milk toast?” I asked.

“Milquetoast. A bit cowardly. Not willing to take risks… But someone explained to me that is almost written into their job description.”

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Business v Comedy rules. This comic got sacked after his Edinburgh Fringe show

Giacinto talked to me at Soho Theatre Bar

Giacinto talked to me at Soho Theatre

What happens after you perform at the Edinburgh Fringe?

One answer is: You get sacked.

London-based Italian comedian Giacinto Palmieri used to work in IT for a well-known property company. Then he went to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe with his show about Wagner.

“The big boss of my company,” he told me in Soho Theatre at the weekend, “came to see my show at the Edinburgh Fringe and, the first day after I came back, I was sacked.

“It would just be coincidence, though. He is so high up in the hierarchy that he would not have been involved in the decision. Probably my being away for three weeks just gave people the chance to plot against me.”

“Different worlds,” I said.

“Perhaps,” suggested Giacinto, “what makes it difficult to be a comedian AND have a day job at the same time is not any difficulty of fitting them into the time available, but the difference in attitudes.

“Comedy helps you develop an attitude which consists in always saying whatever you think and to develop zero tolerance for bullshit. Unfortunately, that is not always appreciated in the business world.”

“”Yes,” I sympathised, “It is probably unwise to say what you think in business.”

“It is such a pity,” said Giacinto. “I think every group needs a trouble-maker like a court jester in order to stop getting stuck in its own rules and ideology. Everything can be found in Wagner, of course.”

“Mmmm…?” I said.

“In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Giacinto told me, there is:

Understand me aright! What a fuss!
You’ll admit I know the rules as well;
and to see that the guild preserves the rules
I have busied myself this many a year.
But once a year I should find it wise
to test the rules themselves,
to see whether in the dull course of habit
their strength and life doesn’t get lost:
and whether you are still
on the right track of Nature
will only be told you by someone
who knows nothing of the table of rules.

Giacinto’s Brighton Fringe poster artwork

Giacinto’s Wagnerian tendencies were given free rein

“Mmmm…” I said.

“The organisation I worked for…” said Giacinto, “…it used to be a start-up and it has kept some of the elasticity of a start-up but, unfortunately, it is losing its soul.

“The IT world used to be very anarchic, very informal but now there are these ‘process gurus’ who always have rules that will solve problems forever and stop software having bugs. They preach the importance of following a process. So we have more and more rules and they create more and more complex processes and people get stuck into systems that are not going to solve problems. If a process could solve problems, we would just be able to write a program which writes programs.

“There are only two types of people who like rules. Those who set them: because there are no rules about setting rules, so they are still enjoying their creative freedom. And people who are so scared of taking responsibility and of making mistakes that they use rules to hide behind them.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I remember when ITV brought in experts – because people in ITV were trying to cover their own asses in case they made a wrong decision – they had an outside company which advised you on how to maximise the ratings in programmes by ‘scientifically’ analysing the content.

“There was a two-hour movie with Richard Dreyfuss in it. He was very popular at the time. So they said Promote Richard Dreyfuss heavily. But, in this film, he was about 18-years-old, in a bit part as a call boy and all he said for maybe two seconds was something like We’re ready! That was the only time you ever saw him in the film. They had analysed the data but had not watched the film.”

Rules. Don’t talk to me about rules.

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My three golden rules of life

NUMBER 1

Never trust anyone. Even someone with your best interests at heart can unintentionally do something which will end up killing you.

NUMBER 2

Never let the bastards see they have hurt you.

NUMBER 3

Give people leeway.

The first time, it could be a mistake.

The second time, it could be coincidence.

The third time, it is enemy action and you are entitled to rip their throats out.

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Filed under Philosophy

Pretty soon, comedian Martin Soan will not be speaking to me. Lucky him…

Pretty soon, comedian Martin Soan will not be speaking to me. Lucky him, some might say.

Yesterday’s blog about things I cut out of my blogs reminded me of something else I had cut out but still had as an iPhone recording: a chat I had with Martin shortly after one of his several 60th birthday parties.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog in which Martin talked about spirituality.

When he read it, he told me he thought it made him sound like a drunken airhead. I think what he said was very interesting. Okay, he was drunk, but he can still say interesting things when he’s drunk.

He was slightly drunk in this conversation, too, recorded shortly afterwards. If he doesn’t like what is quoted, he can always claim he was drunk. I do not have that excuse.

A brick wall - or it could be anything you want

A brick wall – or maybe it could be anything you want it to be

“I read an article years ago,” I was saying to Martin, “which suggested that, in the future, you’ll be able to manipulate molecules. Everything we see is just molecules. The air, the stone walls, my hand: they’re all just molecules. So, if you can control the molecules, you don’t need to have walls for your house that are permanent brick walls. You can make them of anything you want. You could reconfigure the walls’ structure with the press of a button. You could have leaves or television screens instead of walls and change them in the click of a button if you have access to the right molecular structure.”

“But going back to my previous drunken blog with you,” interrupted Martin, “about spirituality.”

“Much appreciated,” I said.

“Fuck off,” laughed Martin. “Are you ever going to escape Man’s essential… How many millennia are we going to have to live into the future before we pass on to the next stage of evolution? That’s if Man’s even lucky enough to be included in the next stage of evolution. Manipulating molecules is just going along a linear line of technology and invention in such a small speck of evolution.”

I told Martin he should sell this ‘found art’ to Tate Modern

I told Martin he could sell this ‘found art’ to Tate Modern

“I think,” I said, “within a hundred years, we…”

Martin started laughing loudly: “You think you could go down Argos and get it?”

“Within 100 years, we could manipulate molecules,” I said.

“But that,” said Martin, “wouldn’t necessarily mean you had any more understanding, would it?”

“It would mean different ways of living,” I said. “I mean, Shakespeare was only 400 years ago. The Queen Mother lived to over 100. The distance between Shakespeare’s time and now is only the length of four people’s lives.”

“But,” argued Martin, “for several millennia, Man’s been exactly the same.”

“In Shakespeare’s time,” I said, “there were people living in wattle huts.”

“But is that the point?” asked Martin. “To be warm?”

“When I came down to London for the first time when I was a kid,” I said, “you walked along Whitehall or looked at St Pancras Station and there was no detailing on the buildings, because it was all totally caked in black soot and it smelled of soot.

Claude Monet’s view of London at the turn of the 20th century

Claude Monet’s view of London at the turn of the 20th century

“In the thick pea-souper smogs, we got let off school early, the air smelled of sulphur or something and, if you held your arm out in front of you, you couldn’t see your hand. You had to move carefully along the pavements step by step and pray when you crossed a road. If you walk around now, it’s a completely different world.”

“Certain things are better…” admitted Martin.

“Almost everything’s better,” I said.

“Ahhh, John,” said Martin, “I don’t think that’s true.”

“What’s got worse?” I asked. “I read old newspapers when I was researching a TV programme and, in 1780-odd and 1880-odd, you could not walk down Regent Street in the daylight in mid-afternoon without the risk of getting mugged. They were calling out the army every Friday and Saturday night to quell drunken riots in places like Woking. The army! The more the cameras look at us and the more GCHQ hacks into us, the safer it will be.”

There was a long, long pause.

“John…” said Martin. There was another long pause “…John…” he repeated.

“But really,” I said, “Just 400 years ago – which is nothing in time terms – people were living in mud huts in Britain. If you brought someone from 1613 to here, they’d have no idea what was going on.”

“But John,” argued Martin, “you’re just basing the next stage of Man’s evolution on sitting in a warm place with a computer and loads of puddings bought from Marks & Spencer… and without any walls. I don’t think that’s necessarily the next step in Man’s evolution. Molecular-manipulated houses and blogging and Marks & Spencer puddings – that’s your next step in evolution.”

“Yes,” I said. “Wasn’t it the US Agriculture Secretary who got sacked for saying people just want a tight pussy, loose shoes and a warm place to shit? There was some racism involved too but remove the racism and he has a point.”

“Will we live any longer?” asked Martin.

“Yes,” I said.

“But is living longer important?” asked Martin.

“It’s a bad thing living longer,” I agreed.

“I saw this TV programme by Kate Humble,” said Martin, “and she went to this part of Afghanistan where the average life expectancy is 35 years and, of course, their life is fucking hard. But that’s what I think life is. I mean, in Sex and The City, they’re moaning because they haven’t got the right boyfriend and can’t find the right shoes and they’ll live to 90 and they’ll spend the last part after they’re 60 bitter. Wouldn’t it just be better to burn out in glory and respect by the age of 35? It’s better to have a good life than a long life.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “There was that Greek myth about the wife who asked the Gods to give her husband eternal life and, of course, she found out that was the wrong thing to ask for. She actually wanted eternal youth, not eternal life. Eternal life would be appalling.”

“And that American sci-fi series,” said Martin. “The famous episode where there was a third-rate comedian who sold his soul to the Devil. He said I just want everyone to laugh at me all the time and, of course, he went out and someone was stabbed and he got blamed and everyone was laughing at him Oh! That’s so funny, man! and he got sentenced to death and executed in the electric chair and everyone was laughing Hahaha! What a way to go out! Now that’s what I call a funny man!”

“Life’s constantly getting better,” I said.

“Most of the guys who sell me my food,” said Martin, “are orphans from foreign countries.”

Downtown Fallujah, Iraq, 2003 - better than East Glasgow

Fallujah, Iraq, 2003 – more life-enhancing than East Glasgow

Janey Godley,” I said, “had a line in one of her shows that life expectancy in Fallujah, Iraq, is 65… In the East End of Glasgow, it’s 55.”

“Also,” said Martin “there was a line in The Wire – though all these things we quote we don’t know if they’re true – that literacy levels are worse in downtown Baltimore than in central Africa.”

“But centuries ago,” I said, “everywhere was shit. Now some places aren’t shit. I imagine the Central African Republic is as bad as it ever was, but Manhattan isn’t as bad as it was.”

Martin then opened the back window of his living room and pulled a beer from the refrigerator which he keeps outside.

“You leave me alone, John,” he said. “I’m drunk. Leave me alone.”

“It’s OK,” I said. “You got drunk and I got my blog and you’re sitting here accumulating money even as we speak…”

“Accumulating money?” Martin asked.

“The value of your house has probably gone up by £10,000 in the last ten minutes,” I said. “This is Peckham. Things are getting better all the time.”

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Lies, damned lies, lawyers & politicians. Vague thoughts from my buggy sickbed.

(A version of this was also published by India’s We Speak News)

Parliamentary Man speaks with forked tongue

After I wrote my blog yesterday, I turned over and went back to sleep. I woke up at lunchtime, around 12.30.

I was in bed for most of the rest of the day with what I think was a bug, so I missed most of David Cameron’s reshuffle of his Cabinet. But it made no difference.

Having a Cabinet reshuffle is like randomly offering round a collection of magnifying glasses in the Land of the Blind. If you stumble on a one-eyed man, it is a matter of pure luck.

That is not a Party political point. It is the same with all British governments of all persuasions. Here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians in governments elected every four years or less do not run the country. The on-going staff civil servants do. Which is much better.

If someone is appointed Minister of Transport then, within hours, they may be expressing ‘considered thoughts and fact-based opinions’ on motorways, airports, rural bus services and the dangerous placing of a zebra crossing by some local council in Devon. But that’s all bollocks. They are given their thoughts by the experienced, ongoing civil servants in their department.

Politicians give vague political directions but, in detail, leave it to their civil servants. Which is fine with me. I studied British Constitution at school and love the ramshackle, mostly effective system that has randomly shuffled itself into existence.

That is why I am so against an elected House of Lords.

We already have an elected House of Commons full of people who have had to bullshit their way in there, voted-for by people who have no real idea who they are voting for. We don’t need another Parliamentary chamber filled with politicians exactly the same as the ones in the Commons.

The beauty of the House of Lords is that it is a shambolic combination of the experienced, the good, the worthy and past-their-sell-by-date politicians: a chamber which should, ideally, be conservative with a small ‘c’ because it is there to consider the House of Commons’ laws and delay or dilute their excesses, worse stupidities and incompetences.

Like the monarch, it has no ultimate power. It cannot ultimately stop a law being passed, only delay it.

It is, just like the monarchy, an accidentally cobbled-together edifice which is a thing of beauty.

The Queen has all theoretical power, no actual power but is vital as a failsafe for the election of a totally barking government.

In theory, she can dismiss a government. In practice, if she did this to a government with popular support, it would be the end of the monarchy. But, if she did this to a barking government with no popular support, she could call on what are theoretically her Armed Forces to enforce her will and it would not be a military coup, it would be an entirely legal constitutional action.

It would have been interesting to see what might have happened if the rumoured military coup planned in Britain in 1975 (without the Queen’s knowledge) had gone ahead.

I have few gripes about the British Constitution, but only about politicians themselves: a necessary if even more amoral type of double glazing salesmen.

I went to a grammar school – the Ilford County High School.

It was a good school but perhaps it had ideas a little above its station. It had a cadet force. (This was a long time ago.) You got to parade around in military uniforms and fire guns, much like in the movie If… though without the same outcome.

And it had a debating society called The Acorns.

I was in neither, which may be partially explained by my dislike of regimentation and my lack of any discernible vocal fluency. I can write OK; but I can’t talk fluently.

I do not remember who was in the school’s cadet force. Very neat boys, I imagine. But I do remember that quite a few of the seemingly intelligent people in the Acorns debating society wanted to study Law at university; they wanted to become solicitors or lawyers.

I remember not being in any way impressed when they told me that the absolute zenith of being a good debater was when you were able to successfully argue on behalf of a proposition you did not believe in – or successfully oppose and get the vote to go against a proposition you actually believed in.

This was seen by them as the height of an admirable skill.

I saw it as making successful dishonesty a goal.

And I have never changed my mind.

I imagine several of my schoolmates who aspired to become lawyers did actually study at university for several years in lying techniques and went on to become lawyers.

The highest triumph of being a good lawyer is if you can get a guilty man or woman found innocent and – of course – equally, if you are a Prosecutor, that you can skilfully get an innocent man or woman found guilty of a crime they did not commit.

The object of the English adversarial legal system is not to reveal the truth but to win the argument and to hide or discredit any opposing evidence. It is a talent contest for liars. The jury decides which of the two advocates has been the better liar. English courts are not set up to provide justice; they are set up to judge the efficiency of the lawyers and to boost or diminish their career prospects.

No wonder that such a high proportion of politicians are ex-lawyers in Britain and in countries where their legal system is based on the English system – Tony Blair, Bill Clinton et al – are trained lawyers/liars.

The English legal system is based on lying and hiding the truth. Politics is the art of pragmatism at the expense of morality.

British governments have always taken the entirely reasonable stance that they recognise and negotiate with the de facto governments of other countries whether or not they approve of their policies; we have diplomatic relations with states not with regimes.

To be a politician, you have to lie efficiently and put any moral scruples you may have once had into the shredder.

Not a new viewpoint.

But a true one.

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Filed under Legal system, Philosophy, Politics, Royal Family

Yesterday a man stood in Leicester Square with a placard saying he had absolutely no message for the world

This man has no important message for you

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, I was rushing to a meeting at 6.30pm just off Leicester Square, in London.

At 6.18pm (that exact time is on the sound recording on my iPhone) I saw a man standing in the North East corner of Leicester Square with a placard saying:

I HAVE NO MESSAGE. AND I’M NOT SELLING ANYTHING. I JUST HAVEN’T GOT ANYTHING BETTER TO DO.

So, obviously, I went up to him.

“You’re a performance artist?” I asked.

“No.”

“An actor?”

“No.”

“So” I asked, “Why?”

“Why?” he asked me in reply. “Why not? It’s something to do. I haven’t got anything better to do. It’s on the placard.”

“So what did you do,” I asked him, “before you didn’t do anything?”

“That’s a bit of a mind-turning thing,” he replied. “It’s been like this for years. I haven’t had anything better to do than this for years.”

“Did you go to college?” I asked.

“I did, but that was years ago.”

“What was the subject?” I asked.

“History and politics,” he replied.

“Ah!” I laughed. “So, you’re a failed politician?”

“Failed.” he said. “Completely failed to be a politician.”

“You could get yourself exhibited at the Tate,” I suggested.

“Do you think so?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like a Damien Hirst thing.”

“It’s an idea,” he agreed. “In the Tate? Just stand on the steps at the Tate?”

“Yeah,” I told him, realising he was thinking of the old Tate building. “In fact,” I said, “you should stand at the main entrance to Tate Modern – at the slope – and you might get a commission. You might get a commission to stand there for weeks on end.”

“Brilliant,” he said with little enthusiasm.

“Leicester Square is the wrong place for you,” I suggested. “This is the home of showbiz and Hollywood. But, if you go to Tate Modern, that’s the home of people who give lots of money for nothing. That’s your ideal market.”

“So that would be my attempt to advertise myself?” he asked.

“Is that too commercial?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I dunno. I probably need a seat or something. Do you think they’d give me a seat?”

“No,” I said, “you’re better to stand.”

“But it’s going to get knackering after standing for too long,” he said.

“But,” I explained, “if you’ve got a seat, it smacks of lack of cutting-edgeness.”

“You think so?” he asked me.

“I think so,” I told him.

“Basically, you’ve got the wrong market here,” I told him.

“You think so?” he asked.

“I think so,” I told him, “There was a story that Damien Hirst was on his way to see some people who wanted to commission him to create a work of art and he accidentally stood in some dog shit on the pavement outside the building and he went in and put the shoe with dog shit on it on the table and they were very impressed.”

“If there’s some dog shit, I could step in it,” he said trying, I think, to be helpful.

Message from the messenger with no message

“Nah,” I said. “That’s been done. This is original – what you’re doing here is very original and admirably meaningless. The important thing is it’s totally and utterly meaningless.”

“Of course it is,” he agreed. “Because that’s life for you. Life is totally and utterly meaningless.”

“How did you get the idea?” I asked.

“It just came to me one day,” he said, brightening up slightly. “It just came to me. I thought Why not? Why not do something completely pointless and meaningless?”

“How long ago was that?” I asked.

“About four years ago, I think,” he said, his enthusiasm dimming. “I’ve been doing this for four years.”

“Oh!” I said, surprised, “I’ve never seen you before…”

“I stopped doing it for years,” he explained. “I started four years ago, but then I didn’t bother for about two or three years.”

“Why?” I asked. “To create a demand?”

“No,” he explained. “I just stopped because I couldn’t be bothered.”

“Why not have a hat on the ground to collect money?” I asked. “Would that undermine the idea?”

“No,” he said. “I just haven’t got round to doing it.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Phil.”

“Phil what?”

“Phil Klein.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“London.”

“And you live in London?”

“I live in London.”

“Can we take a picture?” four passing girls asked Phil.

“Yeah,” he said, without much interest.

“You have a market here,” I told him. “You should be charging for this.”

The girls took their pictures.

“It spreads the word,” said Phil. “It spreads the word.”

“What word?” I asked.

“I dunno,” Phil replied. “There is no word. But it’s spreading whatever is there to be spread in its own kind of way. So this is like… yeah…”

“Where do you live?” I asked. “What area?”

Hampstead,” Phil told me.

“Oh my God!” I laughed. “You’ve got too much money!”

“Not me,” Phil said. “My parents.”

“There’s Art somewhere here,” I mused. “Performance Art. What do your parents do? Are they something to do with Art?… Or maybe psychiatry?”

“They just earn money,” Phil said. “Doing stuff. Well, my dad earns money doing stuff.”

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Erm… Thirty… nine,” Phil replied.

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“You were a bit uncertain,” I said.

“No,” said Phil, “I just felt… It was a bit of a question… thirty nine.”

“You must have done something,” I suggested. “In an office or something?”

“No,” he told me, “I’ve literally done nothing in my life. This is as exciting as it gets for me. This is as exciting a journey, an adventure as…”

A passing girl took a photograph of the large question mark on the back of Phil’s placard.

Seeing the back of the man in Leicester Square

“Thankyou,” she said.

“It works quite well,” he told me. “You see, I have a question mark on the back and a statement on the front.”

“It might be a bit too multi-media,” I suggested.

“You think so?” asked Phil. “Too…”

“Too pro-active, perhaps,” I said.

“You think it’s too active?” asked Phil.

“You need to be more passive,” I said.

“Right,” said Phil.

“Ooh!” I said looking at my watch. “I have to be in a meeting in two minutes!”

“You’ve got to go in two minutes,” Phil told me, with no intonation in his voice.

“Let’s hope the iPhone recorded that,” I said. “If it didn’t, I’ll be back again! Are you here at the same time tomorrow?”

“I could be,” said Phil.

When I came out of my meeting an hour later, Leicester Square was more crowded and Phil and his placard had gone, like a single wave in the sea.

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Filed under Art, Comedy, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Performance, Surreal, Theatre