Tag Archives: Russia

Grouchy Podcast extract: Will Franken’s lack of commitment to being a woman

Copstick and Fleming and a world of Pain

Copstick & Fleming trapped in a not totally comedic podcast

In this week’s 38-minute Grouchy Club Podcast, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I discussed The Jewish Comedian of the Year, a man with plastic testicles, the best Holocaust joke ever, Lewis Schaffer (no surprise there), how BBC TV executive Alan Yentob re-cut controversial comic Jerry Sadowitz’s TV series, the power of TV advertisers, Noel Gay TV and, in this brief extract, trans-gender comic Will Franken aka Sarah Franken and a TV series with horrendous visuals. (You will have to listen to the Podcast to hear details of the visuals… that’s how teaser extracts work.)


COPSTICK
So, are Will and Sarah dividing and going their separate ways; are they alternating; or what’s happening?

JOHN
I think they’ve had a creative difference with each other… No, no. I think he might be phasing out Sarah. It was in my previous blog – worth reading.

COPSTICK
If you can’t remember what’s in them, why should I read them?

JOHN
I can’t remember what’s in it, no. I don’t read them. You know I don’t write my blogs, don’t you? I farm them out to some Filipino children who are going blind in the dark with candle light.

COPSTICK
I did say I didn’t… possibly to you in a blog but, then, you wouldn’t have remembered… that it was… not exactly a phase – ‘phase’ always makes it sound…

JOHN
Star Trek.

COPSTICK
…trite

JOHN
Phasers.

COPSTICK
…trite. I never really felt Will to be like a… There was never a woman in there fighting to get out.

JOHN
There clearly was.

COPSTICK
No.

JOHN
He never wanted to have ‘the snip’, but…

COPSTICK
It’s a little bit more than a snip I think you’ll find, John. A little bit more than a snip.

JOHN
A snip and an excavation.

COPSTICK
A snip and a scoop and a flip…

JOHN
A flip?

COPSTICK
…and a turning-outside-in and…

JOHN
Ooh! what’s the flip?… Oh! the turning outside-in.

COPSTICK
Mmmm.

JOHN
Do you have pictures?

COPSTICK
I actually do. I have an entire video which I made for a television series which I produced called World of Pain…

JOHN
World of Pain?

COPSTICK
…and we were allowed to follow a sex change. Well, ‘gender re-assignmment’ surgery.

JOHN
What was in World of Pain apart from this? It was a 6-part series, was it?

COPSTICK
No.

JOHN
Ooh! What was it?

COPSTICK
It was three 15-part series.

JOHN
Ooh, wow, ooh. And do you remember what was in them? – Because you have a better memory than me.

COPSTICK
I remember everything that was in them. Every episode had a different theme.

JOHN
As I expect from you. What was the most painful bit in the World of Pain?

COPSTICK
Well, it depends. I mean, we did people who got hooks through their skin and dangled from the ceiling. We did branding. We did…

JOHN
Sarcasm?

COPSTICK
We did shark bites.

JOHN
Intentional shark bites?

COPSTICK
John, I am not going to talk to you any longer if you continue to be obtuse.

JOHN
I’m not used to the world of pain. I try to avoid it, myself.

COPSTICK
There were some horrific sporting injuries. I mean, where you see in slow motion a leg bending backwards and forw… Yes, fairly horrific.

JOHN
So it wasn’t all self-inflicted or a welcome World of Pain?

COPSTICK
No. Of course not. What I found interesting was the way the television censors looked at it. There was a really very nice little bit of film that we did in Russia and it was called Ice Babies. Because, in certain areas of Russia, what they do with fairly new born babies is take them out, cut a hole in the ice and dunk the baby in.

JOHN
For why?

COPSTICK
To kick-start their immune system.

JOHN
Like Sparta?

COPSTICK
Yes. I mean there’s a person in there. There’s a nurse and somebody else…

JOHN
In a hole in the ice?

COPSTICK
Well, it’s bigger than a hole. It’s a huge hole. And they throw the babies in and the babies are not massively distressed. Then they pull them out and swaddle them up and it’s kind of a kick-start to their immune system. In the rural villages where they do it, the kids don’t get colds and flus and whatnot and it seems to work in terms of being a bit of a smack in the face for your body’s reactions.

The babies were not distressed. the babies were not crying. None of that. And ITV would not let us show it at all. AT ALL.

JOHN
What is the nurse’s uniform in this? Is she wearing a frogman’s outfit?

COPSTICK
No. she’s wearing a bathing costume. You are being obtuse again, John.

JOHN
It’s very icy. Anyway, ITV wouldn’t show it because…


You can hear the full 38-minute Grouchy Club Podcast HERE.

Tomorrow’s blog will include a more jaw-dropping piece about Will Franken and Lewis Schaffer.

Lewis Schaffer (right) with his arms round Will Franken at St Pancras station

Lewis Schaffer (right) with his arms round Will Franken at St Pancras station – more tomorrow

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Filed under Comedy, Sex, Television

Life is but a dream of Nazis, Russians, the Ukraine and my father’s fatal cancer

A map of the Rhineland in 1905 looks like the human brain

A map of the Rhineland in 1905 looks to me rather oddly like part of a human brain – but, then, I am only very barely awake…

On the rare occasion when I remember a dream, I feel obliged to write about it.

This morning’s blog had been going to be about my father’s cancer in 2001, but I woke up at 6.22am and remembered I had been dreaming about some presumably purely fictional Rhine mine line deaths in the Second World War. The rhyming phrase Rhine mine line was what kept swirling round in my mind. It was something about large numbers of people being taken or thrown down a mine in the Rhineland by the Nazis and a railway line that led to the mine.

Just a dream.

I guess it had something to do with me half-seeing an anti-Ukrainian documentary last night on the RT (formerly Russia Today) TV channel. The purpose of the documentary was to link in viewers’ minds the wartime Nazis and western Ukraine which, admittedly, did have a fair number of Nazi sympathisers. Is it my imagination or is Russian propaganda getting more sophisticated?

The whole Russia-Ukraine thing is so complicated and swirling dreamlike with facts intertwined with the past and political spin that it is rather unsettling because it echoes the build-up to the Second World War.

There are lots of Russian-origined people in Eastern Ukraine. When I was in Kiev in 2012 and 2013, there was talk of the slightly more than vague possibility of the country splitting in two even then.

There were lots of Germans in the Sudetenland in 1938.

The Crimea’s links to Russia and it being part of the Ukraine are complicated, For all the entirely justified Western words about how Russia’s invasion and take-over is beyond acceptability – and it is – the Crimea situation was/is very complicated.

When the Nazi army marched into The Rhineland in 1936 and took over the Sudetenland (which was part of Czechoslovakia) in 1938, there was some similar understanding in the West of the arguments the Nazis put forward for taking them over, just as there was when the Nazis took over Austria in the Anschluss in 1938.

Apparently Hitler had said things like “German-Austria must be restored to the great German Motherland” and “People of the same blood should be in the same Reich.”

Now the Russians are rattling on about ‘protecting their own people’ in eastern Ukraine and there is a clear threat they might invade especially as they claim the recent changeover in power in Ukraine was a ‘neo-Nazi coup’ – thus all the fact-based documentaries on RT and homeland Russian TV about Ukrainian Nazis in the Second World War.

It all swirls round like a dream muddling the past with the present. And I am writing this after waking up ungodly early at 6.22am.

If the Russians were to unacceptably invade and take over eastern Ukraine, there would be a lot of shouting by Western politicians but the Russian propaganda machine could spin the reasons.

Hitler in 1939 believed he could take over the rest of Czechoslovakia without starting a war; he was wrong. If Russia took over western Ukraine, political life would get complicated.

A Google Streetview image of Dreams

A Google Streetview image of Dreams somewhere in London

What all this has to do with my dream of fictional Rhine mine line deaths is another matter.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a blog about my father being in hospital in 2001. He died a couple of months later. Several people asked me what happened next. So I was going to write about that today, but I was sidelined by this Rhine mine line thing.

It was all thirteen years ago anyway and, at that remove, it all becomes a dream. I would not remember any details if I had not written bits down. Just bits. The rest has drifted off, dreamlike, in time.

Never be afraid to write a pretentious sentence is what I say.

Thirteen years ago today – 23rd April – I had an Instant Message exchange with a friend. I pasted it into an electronic diary I kept at the time. My father was due to have a meeting with the consultant/surgeon on May 16th, when he would decide what to do about my father’s remaining cancer.

The Instant Message exchange starts with what my friend wrote…


Monday 23rd April 2001


My father in 1976 on the beach at Clacton

My father in 1976.

Your father sounds like he is doing better than everyone expects.

Well, I think the consultant thinks he is recovering fine. He is still very weak, hasn’t been given any food and gets about half an inch of water per hour to drink. He is on drips from bags of clear liquid (glucose and saline) suspended above the bed. It seems like he has 101 tubes stuck in his hands’ and arms’ veins, has his urine piped to a bag under the bed, has some odd bag of green liquid behind his shoulder and has a couple of tubes taped up his nose under the oxygen mask.

That might mean his resistance and willpower is higher than he’s been given credit for by the surgeon. And that counts so much in something like this.

Well, every time I mention the word ‘liver’ to anyone who knows anything about cancers, they wince.

If your father asks you about life expectancy, which isn’t impossible, then you will have to decide on the spur of the moment how to answer.

I would lie to him and say I don’t know. Hopefully the seriousness will slowly dawn on him and the 16th May should solidify it. As I understand it, chemotherapy is used on the whole body and is horrendous; radiotherapy is used on a specific area and isn’t quite so bad. Presumably the consultant (who is a bowel and nether regions man not a cancer man) is going to… um… consult a cancer specialist before the 16th May. He told me he was going to discuss the case and the possibilities with “colleagues” to decide what to do.

Depending on his and your mum’s mental state, I would tend to think honesty is always the best option. 

So do I, which is why I am none too happy about it, but I think they (particularly my father) should be allowed to try to recover from the operation first. May 16th is proverbially another day. At the moment, my father is incapable of having any type of treatment because he has not recovered from the operation, so time is not of the essence before the 16th May.


If I had not written all that down at the time, I would barely have remembered the details of it.

On YouTube, there is a rather dreary audio recording of a song called Life Is But a Dream by a group called The Harptones.

I have never heard of The Harptones. Apparently they were formed in Manhattan, New York, in 1953, recorded the track in 1955 and it was featured in Martin Scorsese’s over-rated 1990 film Goodfellas.

According to Wikipedia, The Harptones “are still considered one of the most influential doo-wop groups” partly because of (says Wikipedia) their lead singer Willie Winfield. Wikipedia has no entry on Willie Winfield. He may be dead. Or not.

So it goes. Or not.

I think I may go back to sleep and post this blog later. Dreams are strange things.

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Filed under Dreams, Medical, Russia, World War II

I don’t care who my dead relatives were, but comedian Charmian Hughes does

My parents after their wedding

My parents after their wedding

My mother was born with only one hand. Her brother died of pneumonia when he was, I think, around 16 and she was around 11. She had no other brothers and sisters.

When he was in his early teens, my father ran away from home to join the Navy. But he was too young and they rejected him.

Eventually, he joined the Royal Navy when he was 16 in 1936, just in time for the Spanish Civil War in which British forces were not involved – although his ship dropped men off the Spanish coast late at night for reasons he was never told.

In the 1950s, he got tuberculosis and had to go into a sanatorium for a while.

My mother’s father, was a joiner and carpenter. He lived with us after he had a stroke.

My father’s father was a Merchant Navy captain

My father’s father was a Merchant Navy captain

My father’s father, was a ship’s captain. He died when my father was aged about three, so I never knew him.

Beyond my parents and grandparents, though, I’m not really interested in who my ancestors were. They’re in the past.

As far as I know, I am not in any way related to either Sir Alexander Fleming or Ian Fleming – therefore I am not due any money from penicillin or the James Bond books – and so I don’t much care what happened to unknown members of my family in the past.

About 20 years ago, some Canadian members of my Fleming family – whose existence we knew nothing about – tracked down my father and his sister in England. These Canadian Fleming’s were creating a family tree which they later sent to us. There was a surprising number of men in the family – about 3 or 4 – who died as a result of falling into the holds of ships – presumably while very drunk.

Arguably, other people have more interesting members of their families.

Charmian inherited her Victorian relative’s chest

Charmian inherited her relative’s chest

Last night, I went to see Charmian Hughes perform a rough run-through to an audience of six in her kitchen of her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe comedy show Raj Rage, about her trip to India to find out what happened to one of her female forbears caught up in the Indian Mutiny.

It’s a cracker of a story and I would not want to give away the twists and turns, but Charmian has more than one bizarre forbear in her family.

On the wall of the stairs at her home is a portrait of a distinguished-looking, uniformed man.

Charmian’s distinguished grandfather

Charmian’s distinguished grandfather

“That’s my grandfather,” Charmian told me. “My father’s father. He was Irish and was Postmaster General of India for about a week. He was supposed to be from Dublin, but you can’t find him anywhere if you try to look up records of his past. I think he re-invented himself. I don’t know why.

“And this oval portrait,” she said, “is either my mother’s great grandfather or her grandfather. My mother told me he was at medical school and, because he wanted to marry a woman his parents didn’t approve of, they refused to finish paying his fees so, my mother told me, he became what she called That other thing when you don’t qualify as a doctor.

Charmian’s less-distinuished relative

Charmian’s rather less-distinuished relative

“I asked my mother: What do you mean? A nurse?

Don’t be stupid! she told me. “Men aren’t nurses!

A physiotherapist? I asked.

No, no, my mother told me. You know… When girls don’t want to have their babies.

“He was a back-street abortionist when abortion was illegal. Women paid him with their jewellery. He lived in Cricklewood. They all lived in Cricklewood. The ten brothers and sisters all lived in neighbouring streets. I think he was the one who drank himself to death and, as a result, my grandparents didn’t have a drop of drink in the house.”

Charmian also pointed out to me an ornate carved hat stand in her hallway.

A hat stand nicked from the Russians?

Hat stand nicked from the Russians by Charmian’s granddad?

“My mother’s father,” she explained, “was a mercenary who went to Russia during the Civil War between the White and Red Russians after the Bolshevik Revolution and he came back with… well… with stuff. I think he was on the White side. Then he lived in Hertfordshire and he was a travelling salesman for a building materials company.”

Interesting.

Even fascinating.

And it is a very nice hat stand.

But I still have no interest in my own family background.

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Filed under Nostalgia, Russia, Spain

The little reported Ukrainian Moslem problem & feeling sorry for politicians

Kiev2_18feb2014

BBC TV reporting from Kiev on events of 18th February 2014

I visited the Ukraine briefly at the beginning of 2012 and at the beginning of 2013. So I am interested in the ongoing and currently escalating crisis there.

On 23rd February 2014 – just over a week ago – the new Ukrainian government abolished the “law on languages of minorities” including Russian – making Ukrainian the sole state language.

On 26th February, highly-armed pro-Russian paramilitaries appeared in the Crimea.

On 28th February, Russia in effect invaded the Crimea and took over key buildings and areas.

Yesterday, I was sent a long analysis of the ongoing situation by a Ukrainian academic. There were two interesting parts which do not seem to have been covered in UK news reports.

Apparently advisors who were once close to Russia’s President Putin (e.g. Andrey Illarionov) say that, after the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, Putin became obsessed (my word) by the very real threat of a domino effect of further revolution in post-Soviet states, particularly in the Ukraine.

Seen from this viewpoint, the overthrow of Ukraine’s President Yanukovich could escalate into a very real threat to the inviolability of authoritarian rule in (what Putin sees as) the entire Soviet region. Throughout the recent ‘second Orange Revolution’ in Kiev, the Russian media not surprisingly focussed on discrediting everything connected to it – claiming the ‘revolutionaries’ were neo-Fascists etc.

But less well reported in the West was the fact that Russian intellectuals were increasingly vocal in their support and (according to what I was sent yesterday) in St Petersburg and Moscow these ‘intellectuals’ began asking: “If the Khakhly (a derogatory term for Ukrainians) can do it, why can’t we?”

Thus, arguably, the risk of a domino effect has become even more of a potential danger to Russia itself and even more threatening to Putin’s position.

The other (from my TV viewing) under-reported fact is the Moslem factor.

It is complicated enough that Western Ukraine tends to be Ukrainian-speaking, Eastern Ukraine tends to be Russian-speaking and yet a lot of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians see themselves as totally Ukrainian and do not want to be controlled by Russia. It is complicated enough that Crimea used to be part of Russia itself.

But then there are the Tatars.

According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, the Crimean population is roughly made up of 58% ethnic Russians, 24% ethnic Ukrainians and 12% ethnic Tatars.

The Tatars were deported from the Crimea by Stalin after the Second World War and only allowed to return after Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

One of the leaders of this ethnic group apparently spoke at a demonstration in Kiev on Sunday and, as translated, he said that, if a single drop of Moslem Tatar blood is spilt in Crimea, Red Square in Moscow will become true to its name. “By starting a war in Crimea, Mr. Putin,” he apparently said, “you are starting a war against all Moslems in your own country. It will be your end. Crimean Tatars are not fundamentalists, but the Islamic faith promotes significant solidarity among its believers.”

This is a very complicated situation.

It is one of the times I feel sorry for politicians trying to problem solve.

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Filed under Crimea, Russia, Ukraine

“Being a stockbroker is like being a comedian”: Russia Today’s Max Keiser

Max with Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You

Max (right) with Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You

If you want to see the heir of the late American comedian Bill Hicks performing, where do you look?

Not in British comedy clubs where Bill Hicks is the comedians’ comedian. Certainly not in America,  where Bill Hicks only came to most people’s attention fairly recently.

Perhaps one place to look is a television programme transmitted three times a week on the RT channel (The channel used to be called Russia Today.) American presenter Max Keiser is RT’s economic guru; he fronts his own show: The Keiser Report.

Max Keiser (extreme left) on 10 O'Clock Live

Max (perhaps suitably on the extreme left) on 10 O’Clock Live

Last month, he was a guest on BBC1’s Have I Got News For You. Last year, he was a guest on Channel 4’s comedy series 10 O’Clock Livepresented by Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker, Lauren Laverne and David Mitchell. 

Jimmy Carr came up to me after the show,” Max told me yesterday in Soho. “He was very nice and wanted to know more about my views on the economy. A few weeks later, I was having lunch over at his place – beautiful house, beautiful tennis court. He had me up there to talk about gold and silver. He said he was prepared to buy a ton – that’s 32,000 ounces – of silver. Since that lunch, the price has dropped about 50%. So that’s probably why I haven’t heard from Jimmy since then.”

“And you’re a fan of Bill Hicks,” I said.

“If anyone is a big fan of comedy and they watch my show on RT,” said Max. “they’ll recognise that I borrow heavily from him. I liked Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks and that raw, unvarnished truthfulness is something we’ve always tried to strive for in The Keiser Report. It’s just very raw and sometimes it works not from having people’s funny bone tickled but because they are uncomfortable.”

Max Keiser presents his Report on Russia Today TV

Max presents Keiser Report next to Boris Johnson’s City Hall

“But The Keiser Report,” I said, “is a current affairs show – a news show covering business and finance – that is not normally a comic area.”

“At this point in time,” replied Max, “the financial world and the banks are so pathetically corrupt that it’s impossible to cover them without having, to some degree, a satirical view. Very few things which banks do, in this country at this point, are legal. Virtually 100% of everything all the Big Four banks do is illegal.”

“Could you be pushing this angle because you’re a presenter on the Russian government’s own TV channel?” I asked.

“Well, the show is produced by Associated Press,” said Max. “which is an American company. The show is recorded at a TV studio that’s part of London & Partners, which is London Mayor Boris Johnson’s public relations division. And we make other shows with Associated Press which are sold to other outlets. We sold a show to Press TV.”

“Thats worse!” I said. “That’s the Iranian government!. These are dodgy people we are talking about.”

“These are fine international news organisations,” said Max. “We’ve done a show for BBC World News. We did shows for Al Jazeera English.”

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English, Doha

“Ah, now,” I said. “Al Jazeera English is a very, very good news channel, though I don’t know about the Arabic version.”

“When we were in Doha where Al Jazeera English is based,” said Max, “there was this famous car park with the Al Jazeera English building on one side and the Al Jazeera Arabic building on the other and they really did not get along. So there is a perpetual stand-off in Doha and occasionally executives would be taken out to the car park and…”

“Beheaded?” I suggested.

“…left to their own devices,” continued Max. “And that’s not easy to do, because you need an exit visa. So, if executives have fallen into disfavour with Al Jazeera, they have to sneak out of the country.”

“What show did you make for them?” I asked.

“We had a long-standing contract to make a series of documentary films for a show called People & Power.”

“And why is Russia Today doing a capitalist business programme?

“Well, Russia Today has left the Cold War far behind unlike America, which still seems to want to be fighting the Cold War. If you look at the rhetoric coming out of the US, they still think it’s 1970. They don’t understand that Russia and the Russian economy has leapfrogged well beyond what was happening during the Cold War, well past the Soviet Union. They are very entrepreneurial in Russia and the TV network is very savvy. They have a bigger reach than the BBC – over 800 million. I think they’ve really taken the top position in the world right now as far as global international satellite and cable TV is concerned. And whatever we can do to support that, we’re happy to do. In this country, I would say the relationship with the Soviet Union is quite strained. Other countries have moved on from their Cold War perception.”

“You’ll get a Hero of the Soviet Union medal,” I told Max. “You’ve had other comedians on The Keiser Report, haven’t you?”

Max Keiser (right) interviews comedian Frankie Boyle on Russia Today

Frankie Boyle (left) interviewed on RT’s The Keiser Report

“Yes, we’ve had Frankie Boyle. I’m a big fan of his. A no-holds-barred comedian who’s willing to take big risks.”

“What were you talking about?”

“I think he and I talked about the state of the media.”

“But you’re a business show.”

“Yeah, but so much of business now is driven by perception and that perception is driven by the media. The Stock Market – whether it’s the FTSE 100 or the Dow Jones – it’s a hologram driven by perception. There’s no actual equity in those markets; it’s completely a bubble puffed up on zero collateral.”

“What were you before being a TV presenter?” I asked.

“I started out as a stockbroker for Paine Webber on Wall Street in the early 1980s. Before that, I was at New York University and I was doing stand-up comedy. I made the transition from doing comedy to being a stockbroker at the height of the Thatcher/Reagan period.”

“Why?”

“Because, surprisingly, being a stockbroker is not that much different from being a comedian. You’re telling stories to people, going through a lot of stories quite rapidly and you are essentially getting people not to laugh but to say: Give me 1,000 shares. To get to that moment, you use the same techniques as a comedian: pacing, word-choice, empathy.

“I was at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jerry Seinfeld was the MC. Rich Hall was doing improvisation down in the theatre district. Robin Williams was at Catch a Rising Star. On the West Coast, you had Steve Martin. It was the beginning of that huge new wave when comedy became the new rock ’n’ roll and then TV shows came out of that.

“Watching Robin Williams work was pretty remarkable. During that time, before he went on stage, his ritual was to line up seven or eight Kamikaze cocktails. They’re extremely potent alcoholic concoctions. As the MC was about to introduce him, he’d just go Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang and down those suckers and then hit the stage with all that energy.

Max Keiser stands up for his beliefs - possible in Edinburgh

Max Keiser is into a post “Comedy is Rock ’n’ Roll” period

“Now we’re into a post Comedy is rock ’n’ roll period. I’m hoping we’re getting back to the more politicised comedy – the Lenny Bruce type of comedy – that’s what I’m hoping, anyway. A lot of people who do comedy here in London go to the United States and come back and tell me: It’s great; it’s all very funny; but it’s homogenised. They’re all doing the same kind of jokes, which is because of this huge thing called TV: the sitcoms. They’re looking for a certain type to fill a certain spot and there’s 10,000 comics trying to get that one spot and they’re all doing the same act.

“I love the comedy here in London, because it’s completely different. There’s a lot of political edginess to it. A lot of comedians here identify themselves as ‘left wing’. In America, there is no left wing. There’s only slightly right-of-centre and extreme right-of-centre and the fanatical right.”

“Have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“I went for the first time last year.”

“You should do a show up there,” I suggested.

“I would like to take a show up there though, if I do, I’d have to workshop it here in London beforehand. But I’ve already been doing my Stand-Up Rage show in cities around the world: Dublin, Los Angeles, London.

“People are fans of my rages on The Keiser Report and this is a 60-minute rage without any control whatsoever. I go into a fugue state in a white rage. Afterwards, I literally have no memory of what I’ve said. It’s a cathartic experience and the audience, in many cases, achieve a level of ecstasy.”

There was a slight pause.

“So you don’t have a script,” I asked. “You just go off on a rant?”

“I start off on one basic idea,” explained Max, “and I will refer to headlines and each usually triggers a good ten minutes of rage. Then, to catch my breath, I will maybe cut to a 20 second music or video blurb.”

“And you rage about politics?” I asked.

“It’s about the bankers and the banksters because, when you have this merging of the private banking interests and the political interests otherwise known as Fascism… I mean, London is the capital of financial terrorism. This is where the financial Jihadis congregate.”

“You do good headline,” I said.

“If you go down to the City of London,” continued Max, “they have the madrassas – otherwise known as HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland. These are the madrassas of banking fanaticism. They pursue market fundamentalism which says they can blow themselves up and others around them – not to seek THE Prophet but some profit.”

(The Keiser Report is transmitted on RT, with editions also available on YouTube)

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Filed under Cold War, Comedy, Economics, Finance, Russia, Television

Exclusive! – Mr Methane reports from World Fart Championships in Finland

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

Mr Methane (left) and Championships presenter Phartman

Mr Methane (left) & Championships’ presenter Phartman

This morning, dramatic news from Finland via my professional farting chum Mr Methane.

Yesterday, at the first ever World Fart Championships in Utajärvi, Finland. the single and team events were won by two Russian friends, Vlad & Alex who had flown to Helsinki from Moscow and then made a five hour train journey to Utajärvi.

They had heard of the farting festival earlier this year on Mr Methane’s website and Vlad said to Alex: “There is a farting contest this summer in Finland. Shall we go ?”

Alex replied: “Yes we should.”

Vlad said: “There is more. Mr Methane is performing there.”

Alex is said to have replied: “Wow! I have already packed.”

Not unreasonably, they decided that the double whammy lure of a farting competition AND possibly meeting Mr Methane, their hero, was too good to miss.

“So,” Mr Methane told me this morning from Finland, “they came and won both prizes for Russia yesterday, establishing a new festival volume record in the bargain.”

Japanese fart battles of the 17th century

Documented air battles raged in Japan between 1603-1868

Admittedly, this was not difficult, as it was the first World Fart Championships, although the tradition of farting competitions goes back at least to 17th century Japan where, between 1603-1868 there were “He-gassens” – fart battles.

In the 199os, a collection of scrolls showing some of these bitterly-fought air battles was sold at Christie’s in London for $1,200.

At yesterday’s World Fart Championships in Finland, Mr Methane was not competing. He had been invited by the organisers as a farting icon and the inspiration to a generation of Finnish flatulists.

Before the event, presented by local entertainer Phartman, both Mr Methane and I had been a bit vague about how the organisers were going to make farting into a competition and how they were going to decide winners. All was revealed yesterday.

Winning Russian duo in the team event

Winning Russians Vlad (left) & Alex in the team event

“Contestants had to drop their trousers,” Mr Methane reported, “but they kept underpants on. There was a large egg timer and they had 30 seconds in which to fart. There was a decibel meter and a microphone in a pipe below the seat on which they sat. For team events, there was a double seat.

“Contestants had two attempts – not one after other – they went to the back of the queue. It was all about the volume.”

“How loud were the Russian winners?” I asked.

Mr Methane performed with backing from the local Utajärvi brass band

Mr Methane performed The Blue Danube to hushed crowds in Finland yesterday with backing from the Utajärvi brass band

“Sorry,” Mr Methane told me, “I can’t remember the exact decibel meter reading, but it was just under 90.”

“And the audience?” I asked.

“They were polite, enthusiastic and appreciative of my show which was the matinée intro to the Fart Championships themselves. I also closed the Championships with a long fart at the end.”

The Russians’ secret weapon

Russians’ secret weapon

“Did the Russians have any particular technique?” I asked.

“They told me they thought a particular Russian drink had helped them win the contest,” said Mr Methane. “It is non alcoholic but fizzy.”

It is called квас оцаковскии – kvass otsakovskii. Kvass is a fermented drink made from rye bread and is marketed in Russia as a patriotic alternative to cola.

Coca-Cola launched its own brand of kvass in Russia in 2008 and Pepsi has signed an agreement with a Russian kvass manufacturer to act as a distribution agent. So the kvass wars cannot be far off.

You read it first here.

Mr Methane tells me: “It tastes like fizzy Marmite. Vlad and Alex presented me with a bottle as a gift and then sang a couple of verses of my song Cut The Cheese (available to view on YouTube)”

“Did they get a prize?” I asked him.

The Russian winners and their prize

The Russian winners with part of their prize

“Yes,” said Mr Methane. “52 cans of nuclear pea soup, the fuel that Phartman uses. Their two straight event wins mean that they went back to Russia with 104 tins which could be a problem at the airport baggage drop. But the organisers put their prize in a wheelbarrow and gave them a lift to the station for the 11.00pm overnight train back to the south.

“The weather had looked a bit dodgy before the Championships – overcast and showers – but it brightened up once the farting started and the sun eventually shone.

“I stayed overnight in a disused mental asylum in middle of a forest with Phartman who turns out to be a psychiatric nurse. It is very Soviet Union. The mosquitoes in the woods around the mental hospital have bitten me nearly to death. I am now off to catch a plane. There are strong winds here at the moment.”

Mr Methane will be talking about his life farting around the world in his own full-length show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and, unless discovered by Hollywood, will be performing at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on 23rd August.

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Organised religion usually all ends in tears, discrimination and beheadings…

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

A Siberian shaman, circa 1692

What a well-dressed Siberian shaman looked like, circa 1692

I have no problem with religions. They mostly boil down to the advice: Be nice to other people.

This is good.

But organised religion tends to eventually turn sour and it usually all ends in tears, discrimination and beheadings.

Yesterday, I went to a lecture at Gresham College in London.

Gresham College was founded in 1597. That was a year when 26 people were killed in Nagasaki because they were Catholics.

So it goes.

Yesterday’s Gresham College lecture was titled The KGB’s Bête Noire.

The bête noire of the KGB, allegedly, was the Keston Institute, founded in 1969 to study religions in Communist, and now formerly Communist, countries.

Xenia Dennen, Chairman of the Keston Institute, talked about how religions had been repressed in the Soviet Union, then come into the open again with the collapse of the Soviet Union but were now facing problems again.

Russia’s 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations recognises four religions: the Russian Orthodox Church, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Note that it recognises only one branch of Christianity.

More interesting to me, though, was that, last summer, Xenia Dennen visited Buryatia, a traditionally Buddhist part of Siberia.

“In Buryatia,” she said last night, “I met some shamans. They weren’t exactly what I had expected. They wore shirts and ties and had mobiles going off during our interview. The chief sat at the head of a table in a splendid wooden chair with a high back with carved eagle and other creatures adorning its back.

The interesting Buryatia countryside just south of Ulan-Ude

The interesting Buryatia countryside just south of Ulan-Ude

“We sat in what was a small wooden hut on a hillside overlooking Ulan-Ude. This was the headquarters of the Religious Organisation of Tengeri Shamans – Tengeri, I gather, are gods of sun, moon and mother earth – to which 67 shamans belonged.

“They told us that altogether there were 3,000 shamans in Buryatia who were resurrecting ancient forms of Buryat shamanism which had survived during the Soviet period in Mongolia.

“They said: We are returning to our ancient roots.

“They said the sky was their main god with a large hierarchy beneath it, but they reassured us that they didn’t dabble in black magic, which never worked. They only wanted to ‘do good’.

Today, they said,  demands the resurrection of these ancient rituals as many current illnesses are incurable… We can influence the elements… We could put out the fires in California, in Chita, in Krasnoyarsk… We can deal with global warming, tornadoes, floods… We worship the gods which the West has forgotten… If the West does not recognise these gods, then these problems will continue… How many people will die if shamanism is not accepted?

“Despite the grimness of these warnings,” said Xenia Dennen last night, “I found them a very friendly lot. But, of course, I think they might have appeared rather different in their shaman robes and in a trance. Not at all cosy, I suspect.”

But I find it somehow reassuring that there are still people out there who believe in the sky.

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