Tag Archives: philosophy

Lynn Ruth Miller meets her idealistic, optimistic, innocent 21 yo self in Beijing

In her last missive from China, comedienne Lynn Ruth Miller was in Shanghai. Then she progressed to Beijing…


There are definite pluses to being small and old in China. I have survived because of the kindness of strangers just like Blanche did in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but I did not have to sell what she did. Actually, mine is not worth selling these days, not even on eBay. Don’t tell ME it is never too late.

It is too late.

You would be amazed how confusing things are when you cannot ask directions or read the signs.

The road from Beijing airport into the city was lined with trees and it felt almost as if we were going through a forest to get to my hotel. The driver walked me into the lobby and left me there. No-one spoke English and I was thinking I might just have to unpack there and set up shop when, to my utter delight, a little angel appeared in a fuchsia hat that proclaimed: “Here to BREAK your heart”.  

A carbon copy of idealistic 21 y.o. Lynn Ruth

But she didn’t. Instead, she helped me find my room and figured out the lights and the internet. Her name was Diane and she was a carbon copy of the idealistic, optimistic innocent I was at 21, eager to learn more, do more and see more but afraid of all the unknowns in the universe. I discovered she also had challenges with relationships and food.

I had thought the only nervous, insecure wrecks were Jewish girls like me from Toledo, Ohio.

That evening, I sat and talked to this lovely human being who cares so much about life and thinks she can do so little. We talked about writing and the arts. We talked about philosophy and we talked about the ways society tries to limit us.

Then we walked to see my venue, The Bookworm.

I was struck with the way the main street looked like any street in Central London, filled with recognizable shops. I was told this was a very up market part of town and, indeed, it felt very Fifth Avenue but with a difference. Motor bikes go up on the sidewalks and weave through pedestrians and cars block the entrance to shops. I am absolutely certain there are no traffic laws whatsoever in Beijing.

Crossing the street is a challenge. Even when you have the green light, cars and motorbikes turn into the street and swerve around pedestrians. As I crossed on a green light, several cars turned into the intersection and just steered around me avoiding the ten bicycles coming the other way and motorbikes weaving through the entire mess trying to avoid severing toes and bruising hips. There is no such thing as right of way.

I did not get the sense that people feel repressed or unhappy even though we are told that they have a very repressive and controlling government that limits people’s freedom. Instead I got the same feeling I get walking the streets in London or New York of busy people living productive, secure lives.

Not all traffic – in the Soho area of Beijing

I was struck by how fashionable the women were and how beautifully they dressed. I was also taken by couples with children and the way they hover over their little ones.

Until just lately, China only permitted couples to have one child and that child was hopefully a son. From what I hear, girl babies were often aborted or drowned.

Now the law has changed and you can have two children. Furthermore, amniocentesis is banned. You cannot try to find out the sex of your unborn child.

These parents are totally devoted to their babies and the children are all dressed adorably with cute tee shirts and adorable little jackets and shoes. The place felt like a fashion show. Perhaps that’s why I saw so few dogs. You only have so much love you can give.

When we got there, I loved The Bookworm. It is one of those all-in-one places where you can go to an event, eat food, drink wine and have good conversations. Very reminiscent of Shakespeare and Company in Paris.

In the hutong area, I saw a very different side of Beijing: very Chinese, very traditional, with narrow streets, shops jammed next to one another and people crowding each other on the street. Chinese people push and shove their way to where they want to go. There is no sense of courtesy to strangers as there is in Britain and yet, face-to-face, they are unfailingly kind. I had numerous people guide me across streets and one guy hugged me afterwards as if I were his best friend. Yet, if you are in their way, watch out.

My friend Jesse Appel runs a venue in Beijing: the US-China Comedy Center. He comes from the richest community in the United States, Newton, Massachusetts, and went to Brandeis University, an exclusive Jewish university that, despite its origins, is very diverse. Only half the student body is Jewish.  

Jesse explained to me that standup comedy as an art form is very new in China, but growing. He was part of a small team that initiated Chinese standup with Des Bishop, an Irish comedian from Flushing, New York, who is famous for doing comedy in the Chinese language.

That night, I performed at The Bookworm. It was an add-on show following the Chinese Comedy that Jesse was in.

I listened to the Chinese show and was astounded and encouraged at how eager the audience was to laugh. However, after the group of 125 chuckling Asians at that show dispersed, I was left with about 30 people, most of them from Beijing with English as their second language. There were about 5 people who were from the US and UK – one from Leeds, one from Newcastle and one man from Michigan where I went to University. He was the only one who got all the jokes.  

Lynn Ruth performed in English at The Bookworm in Beijing

The rest of my audience were polite; they listened; they chuckled. But they were not like Jakarta or Manila. The host was a man from Orlando named Mac who was very good. The opener was his brother who informed us that he was very famous in Orlando, Florida. He was supposed to do 10 minutes but he rambled on for 30.  

The show began on Chinese time (always late) and, by the time I got on stage 45 minutes later, the audience was half asleep. But the guy from Michigan laughed; the man from Leeds chuckled and drank gin and tonics; and the rest of the audience smiled, nodded and tried to figure out what “a suppository” and “a cellar door” was.

You cannot win them all.

That said, I got a tremendous amount of praise for the show from the very audience members I thought I had confused. So maybe they did get some of it after all.

When it was time for me to go home (about 1.00am) Justin from Leeds offered to walk me to the hotel.

As we walked, chatting about life and love and the high cost of sex in China, we missed the sign for my hotel. We ended up in another hotel about half a mile from where I was staying, where no-one could speak English to help us.  Justin has been here for 6 years. He understands a bit of Chinese but, unlike Jesse who has mastered the language to the point where he has no accent, Justin communicates only in English.  

We wandered around asking people who had no idea what we were asking until one wonderful human caught on. He WALKED us to our destination. By this time, I had a raging headache from having only eaten those soggy noodles and nothing else all day. Justin, being an English Gentleman, was determined to find me something to eat. That is why I love British men. They do what their mothers taught them and their mothers got it right.

We went into a bar adjacent to the hotel but, by this time, it was almost 2.00am and no food was being served. A man from Los Angeles named Eddie saw our plight, argued with the manager about the necessity of bending rules and regulations to no avail, then disappeared to go to a convenience store to get me a bit of bread. Eddie informed me that I had very young eyes but my hearing aid didn’t quite get what he said, so I responded: “Yes, it never turned grey.”

I staggered upstairs at 2.30am, still worrying about audience reaction to my show. I wrote Eamonn in Jakarta and said that it was not like the show I did for him and, being the modest, non-assuming Brit that he is, he said: “Nothing is.”

Beijing – “Everyone has the same fears, the same wants…”

And he is right.  Each place is different and that is what is so exciting about doing an international tour.

Everyone has the same fears, the same wants and the same needs but they express them in totally different ways.

And that explains why Chinese people love that horrid tea that tastes like soaked dirt and the English love fish encased in so much batter you cannot find the cod.

There is no accounting for taste.

The next evening, I went to The Bookworm to hear Ian McEwan discuss his new book Machines Like Me. It examines what makes us human. Our outward deeds or our inner lives? He pointed out that the novel is the one place where you can get inside another person. 

When I returned to my hotel, I received two follow-up e-mails from people who had seen me at the book talk and heard that I had published books of my own.

I think it is safe to generalize that Chinese people are very anxious to enlarge their scope and increase their understanding. There is a tremendous amount of intellectual curiosity that I find very refreshing.  

Once you decide you know it all, you know nothing.

… CONTINUED HERE

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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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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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