Tag Archives: Presbyterian

How to write a comedy show about a serious subject – the British in Africa

Njambi McGrath in Soho last week

Njambi in Soho prepares for Leicester Square show tomorrow

“I suppose a lot of new comics don’t realise you can talk about serious subjects,” Kenyan-born comedian Njambi McGrath told me last week.

When I blogged about her in February, Njambi told me she wanted to write a book about the British colonial period in Kenya – with her parents’ lives as a narrative thread – and, to encourage herself to do the hard work involved in researching it, she would write an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show – Bongolicious – on the same (decidedly non-comedic) subject.

“How is the book coming along?” I asked her last week.

“Hard work,” she told me. “And emotional. I’ve been phoning my mother, who’s back in Kenya, but she speaks with great difficulty because she’s got Parkinson’s Disease and she needs someone to translate to me what she’s saying.

“The British used to come to a village and collect people, make them dig their own graves and then shoot them.

“My grandmother was born at the time a lot of the Settlers moved in. I was reading about the traditions in the time when my grandmother was circumcised and the etiquette and the dances they had to do two or three months beforehand.

“The missionaries all came to East Africa to ‘save’ us. They all had spheres of influence. The ones local to my grandmother were Scottish. Presbyterians.

“She turned to the church because she was looking for solace but, in order for her to be accepted, she had to abandon all cultural practices, because the church people found some cultural practices to be morally repugnant – and these were people from Glasgow!”

“What cultural practices were repugnant?” I asked.

“They way they dressed; their dancing; the way they used to cut their ears.”

“Sounds like a Saturday disco night in Glasgow,” I said.

“How strong is religion in Scotland?” Njambi asked me.

“Don’t even ask,” I said. “If you’re Catholic or Protestant in Glasgow, you’re in a lot of trouble, but being black gives you a Get Out of Jail card… So some of the stuff you’ve been researching for the book will be in the Edinburgh show?”

Njambi McGrath - Bongolicious

Njambi will be Bongolicious in Edinburgh

“I can’t put everything in, of course,” said Njambi, “and there are some things I am omitting because they are rather gruesome. For example, I won’t talk about shooting into the graves, because it’s already clear what’s happening.”

“And,” I said, if you have 55 minutes of brutality, it loses impact. You don’t want to cheapen the material with laughs, but it helps to pace the show.”

“It’s difficult,” said Njambi. “There are some areas where people can laugh – like about the Settlers, who were ridiculous. The stuff that is very deep I can’t joke about. Like the soldiers who used to come in at night and ask the women if they wanted their children to be raped or killed… I’m working like crazy to find a few more punchlines.”

“Sometimes people laugh from relief,” I said.

Njambi is performing a preview of Bongolicious at the Leicester Square Theatre tomorrow night and then at other venues. She tests parts of it every week at her comedy club – Heavenly Comedy – in Shepherd’s Bush.

“I want to test the reaction on real audiences,” she tells me. “I want it to end up like a rollercoaster.”

“What about the end?” I asked. “You sort-of need to have an ‘Up’ at the end, which is difficult to pull off without cheapening what’s gone before.“

“The end of the story is much more positive,” explained Njambi, “because it is about my parents and that’s a positive thing – two young people who get together and save enough money to buy a farm – They survived, despite all odds, when many people didn’t survive. Maybe around 300,000 people were killed. Some are in mass graves. Some are in a museum… In a museum!”

“Your mother must be very proud,” I said.

“She is just happy to be heard,” Njambi told me. “My mother is 67; she struggles massively to talk. All these things happened and there was no acknowledgement. Life moved on as if nothing had happened. The reason it has made me so emotional is I grew up without knowing anything about it. My parents, either consciously or unconsciously, didn’t mention any of it.

“My mother has only just told me how the children were called to go and see public hangings. There was an incident where Mau Maus had been blown up with hand grenades and the children were taken out of school to go and see the mutilated bodies.”

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Filed under Africa, colonialism, Comedy, Kenya

Someone appears to be trying to screw me out of money I am owed and that never seems to end well

When I was newly 18 – just a couple of months after my 18th birthday – I tried to kill myself over a girl. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve never regretted it.

But, being a novice at such things, I used drugs – aspirin, paracetamol and codeine. This was a mistake. I had always been shit at Chemistry in school. I always came last in Chemistry, except on one occasion when I came next-to-last. The Chemistry master wrote on my report A fair try and emigrated to New Zealand.

The reason I mention this is that people have always tended to mis-read me. For one thing, they misread nihilism for jollity: a very strange misreading, even if it is occasionally humorous nihilism.

But people (as always) read other people’s thoughts and actions based on their own psychological make-up. This seems to mean that most people think I give a shit.

And they assume that I will calculate consequences in the same way that they would. This is not necessarily true. When I get into a tussle of tiffs. I do calculate consequences, but I may calculate them (from other people’s viewpoints) unexpectedly, in the sense that a scorched earth policy or the Cold War nuclear concept of MAD (mutual assured destruction) does not worry me. I do try to warn people about this, but they seem to ignore the warnings.

They are so used to reading between the lines that they don’t really pay attention to what is actually being said.

If you have, at a point earlier in your life, assumed that you would cease to exist in 60 or 30 or 10 minutes time and if that was an outcome you decided was acceptable – welcome, even – then, trust me, risk calculation later in life may not be on the same measurement scale that other people assume.

The comedian Janey Godley has said of performing comedy: “If I ever stood in a room with 600 people and talked for 15 minutes and nobody laughed, then it’s no worse than having a gun held at your head and I’ve already had that, so it doesn’t really scare me.”

She speaks from experience.

In different circumstances, so do I, though I have never had a gun held at my head. Though there was that unfortunate incident with the young Yugoslav soldier sitting up a tree in a forest outside Titograd.

The fact I genuinely care very little about consequences may also have something to do with having had a Scottish – and Scots Presbyterian – upbringing. The world is full of greys. It is not black and white. But, whereas others may not see a dividing line between the shades of grey I see from my personal viewpoint, I do.

Most decisions and most things in life don’t matter. But, if I decide something DOES matter, then I know where I have drawn that line. One side of that pencil thin line is what is acceptable. On the other side of that pencil thin line is something that is unacceptable under all circumstances.

Up to that line, I am told I am very malleable. If that line is crossed, though, then I will attempt to rip your throat out.

My rule of thumb is three strikes and you are out.

Fuck the consequences.

Just thought I’d mention it…

Now, anyone got any money-making propositions they want to run past me?

Perhaps a job as a risk assessment advisor?

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Filed under Comedy, Psychology

Shopping in London – now part of California

I have lived too long. I want to go back to the 20th Century.

Yesterday I was in a very very crowded Ugg Boots shop in Long Acre, Covent Garden. There was a queue outside with two assistants shepherding people while, inside, people intertwined with each other in the narrow shop to pay £200 plus for a pair of fairly ordinary-looking, though I’m sure admirably snug, boots.

I am a simple Presbyterian-brought-up wee soul. Bread and water and a cotton vest are enough for me. And underpants in this cold winter weather.

We are just talking boots – most of which should not be worn in the snow for fear of damaging them.

A little later, I was in the shoe department of the John Lewis store in Oxford Street and heard one assistant – sorry, Partner – say to another:

“Are the microwave shoes in Electricals or in Gifts?”

I looked at the second assistant – sorry Partner – trying to spot any look of fear or panic in her face but, no, she answered matter-of-factly:

“Last year they were in Electricals among the hair dryers.”

I then picked up a pair of FitFlop shoes which claimed on a label that they would “help increase leg and bottom muscle activity (up to 30%)” and “help realign ground force reaction closer to your joints”.

I had a feeling I had slipped through a wormhole in space and time and was in California.

Another label attached to the shoes said that, because of their beneficial nature, they might hurt your feet at first so you are not advised to wear them very often after you first bought them.

This sounds to me like buying a car which will get you from A to B quicker but being told you shouldn’t use it very much at first in case you crash.

Apparently FitFlops “absorb more shock than a normal shoe (up to 22%)”.

That’s more than I can absorb.

I want to go back to the 20th Century.

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Filed under Comedy, Consumer Affairs