Tag Archives: Shakespeare

When I came home yesterday at dusk… Tomorrow & tomorrow & tomorrow…

Durer_NurnbergRuins

I live on the outer edge of London in what is called a Close but is actually a square, with buildings on three sides and, on the other, the back gardens of houses in another street.

When I came home yesterday at dusk, the buildings on the three sides were half demolished, the roofs non-existent, the walls and innards had been broken down to half or more or less than their old height, the bricks and plaster destroyed or exposed and everything was covered with that light white dust of demolition.

When I had walked up the nearby street to my home, there had been red double-decker buses and waste bins and people walking around like it was hundreds of years ago and you were living in and walking through a world you had only known previously from old, faded images. It was dusk and all the 2-dimensional detailing and colours and sounds were there in 3-D reality.

Then I was standing on the Blackford Hill, looking north towards the Firth of Forth and Fife, with the waters stretched out flat and wet before me, the little black island of the Castle Rock sticking out of the water on the left and the larger green island of Arthur’s Seat sticking up out of the water to its right. And, way down, in the waters between them, were the underwater streets and passageways and stone buildings of what used to be Edinburgh. Just dark stone passageways and alleyways in a dark underwater maze now, with light marine growths on the dark stone walls and fish swimming along and between and inside the empty rooms of all the old buildings.

Dreams are strange.

It is very very rare that I remember mine.

Perhaps once a year; maybe twice.

I wish I remembered them more often.

But all the above was not a dream I had last night.

It was yesterday at dusk and I was awake and the images were in my mind.

MyEye_CUT

 

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Filed under Death, Dreams, Nostalgia

Comic Lewis Schaffer “has got that same metaphysical motive as Shakespeare’s characters” says British academic study

Academic researcher Liam - as he wishes to be seen

Academic researcher Liam – as he wishes to be seen

In the last few months, I have posted some extracts from chats Liam Lonergan had with me and various comedians, including Lewis Schaffer for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth. Yesterday, I got a message from Liam:

I got a 1st for my Media Writing Project / Dissertation. It consisted of a research bundle, a series of long-form articles and an essay about:

a) how stand-up starts as an egalitarian pursuit but is eventually absorbed into market capitalism,

b) How Lewis Schaffer relates to literary modes of humour and

c) the link between humour and hypomania.

(The latter was eventually abandoned but it was still part of my research).

“Can I print your academic piece about Lewis Schaffer?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“What should I say about you?” I asked.

“Maybe mention,” he said, “that I review restaurants for a website called Blue Tomato and that, one day, I hope to write ‘The Great Essex Novel’ in the same vein as that other quested-for chimera ‘The Great American Novel’.”

“Have you got a photo of yourself looking suitably academic?” I asked.

“I’ve attached a picture that you can use,” he told me. “I want a picture of me that is the antithesis of scholarly.”

That is the picture above, together with Liam’s thesis below.


Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless guru

All of us think in a series of banalities; useless thoughts and redundant ideas that fall away like discarded receipts. My housemate and I used to have an ongoing joke where we place bits of ephemera found in our pockets (a ticket; a tissue; a raisin) onto each other’s pillow. We put them there as if they were a present or a swimming certificate or anything other than a train ticket or a bit of old raisin.

We never spoke about it. The joke was that, by sneaking in and displaying these innocuous items prominently on the pillow, they were given some sort of “weight.” They were imbued with symbolic gesture. We also used to play a game where we left a mug out on the mantelpiece and waited four months until it was really dusty. We called it Dusty Cup.

This meant nothing.

In his book about comedy and literature, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, James Wood writes about the irrelevance of stream of consciousness and how we’re “continually remembering more, and most of it is useless information.” Our thought processes are pure raisin – they’re full of useless information – but we always infuse this uselessness with meaning.

Nearly all the dialogue in the HBO series True Detective was constructed by this instinct to make bollocks seem important. (Sidenote: The Ladybird Book of Gnosticism was a vital source for Nic Pizzolatto). Another example is Andy Kaufman’s “deadpan showbiz parody” and “dadaist performance art.” While commentators wrote about the postmodernist aspect of his act, he always insisted that it was devoid of any real substance. In 1979 he told Time magazine “The critics try to intellectualize my material. There’s no satire involved. Satire is a concept that can only be understood by adults. My stuff is straight, for people of all ages.” Wood goes on to write about the “status of irrelevant detail.”

For me, my favourite comedy is about these irrelevant details and our digressionary pursuit of gravitas (while, ultimately, settling on the pointless stuff). Again, as Wood says: “It is always funny when singular novelty is passed off as a general wisdom.”

Stream of consciousness on the page can never mimic actual thought processes as syntax is too calculated; it’s too exact. Russian novelist Vladimir Nabakov complained that the problem with James Joyce’s Ulysses is that we don’t think in words. Joyce – in-between writing letters to Nora Barnacle about her “gushing hole” or “arse full of farts” that he fucked out of her – attempted to capture the metamorphosis and constant displacement of mental activity.

When you transcribe interviews (or watch politicians go off-piste during a photo op in Iceland) you notice this kind of transient, shifting language. People speaking in half aborted statements that they pick up an hour later; malopropistic mangling that, somehow, has its own internal logic; explanations that peter out and…

The prototype for stream of consciousness in fiction was Shakespeare’s soliloquies. These are meant to provide an insight into the brain of Lady Macbeth or Edmund via. a recital to the omnipotent audience, but they, too, can’t accurately capture consciousness. They’re “thought” after thought. Carefully composed language acts as an agent for the knotted-pubic-thatch of brain function.

After five years of studying Shakespeare in senior school we know that these speeches are attached to a half-a-ton of subtext; a Kerouac scroll of margin notes about “out damn spot!” and “unsex me here”. (Sidenote (2): In the latter speech, Mrs. Macbeth wanted her feminine nature to be taken away. She should have just called Joyce and asked him to come over to suck the “little naughty farties” out of her arse. Job done).

Shakespeare’s universe is populated by people with intent. Everything that comes into their head is multi-sided and full of meaning. They never ruminate on why James Locke from The Only Way Is Essex looks like he has no eyelids or if Kim Kardashian uses a lot of Sudocrem. The heroes and heroines / villains and villainesses vocalise their interior monologues because they have a metaphysical motive: they want to show the audience and themselves that they exist. They can’t exist in a cocoon of private mood.

In life, people don’t usually narrate their feelings and intentions out loud. They keep them contained on a human Cloud Drive or put them on their Twitter feed. One notable exception is the comedian.

The best comedians transmit their agonies or intentions – minus an author’s literary-technical need – directly to the other people in the room. The more ill prepared the material, the better. They usually position themselves in contrast to what, in the words of American academic and Presbyterian minister, Conrad Hyers, is considered “authentically human”. Hyers writes that heroic traits such as “courage, loyalty, duty, honor, pride, indomitable will, stubborn determination, passionate involvement, absolute devotion, uncompromising dedication” have become, in our common understanding of what makes someone a correct human, a list of sought after characteristics.

For comedians, it’s part of the criteria that they’re none of these things. (Sidenote (3): Although, Tim Heidecker, of the comedy duo Tim & Eric, was stabbed twice in 2006 while attempting to protect his elderly neighbour from her son. Some are brave but only behind closed doors).

Hyers goes on to say that “the comic vision possesses a greater appreciation for the muddiness of human nature.” This includes the raisin and the Dusty Cup of nothing. The insubstantial stuff.

Dusty Cup is the “midst of nothingness” that Vladimir, in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, talks about towards the end of the play. It’s the elliptical nature of existence. It’s the explanations that…

In November 2013, I went to Soho to meet Lewis Schaffer. Lewis is a 56 year old stand-up who moved from New York to Nunhead approximately 12 years ago and performs two weekly shows at The Source Below. He also has a residency at the Leicester Square Theatre where he features most Sunday evenings with his other show, American In London. Martin Witts, the Artistic Director of the LST, said that Lewis is a “long term project” and he hopes that, one day, “he’ll be consistently funny”. When he emailed me this, I replied with: “the inconsistency is part of his charm!” Lewis keeps the discarded receipts.

Lewis has an off-white complexion that is somewhere between “Dunmore Cream” and “Monroe Bisque” – with a slightly swampy tinge – and a face with the same solid architecture as the Boxer of Quirinal (minus the beard). He’s stocky with hunched shoulders and wears a suit that has some strain on the middle button a la Oliver Hardy or Jackie Gleason. His hair is peppery. This is a different colour to the ink-cartridge-black that appears in most of his promotional photos.

He is scattergun in speech and disposition and sounds a bit like Martin Scorsese or Greg Proops or one of those manicured Jewish mothers. During conversation, he often veers off course (“A limey! A limey. From Limehouse. Limey from Limehouse. Hey! So. So what was the question you had?”) and chases another fleeting thought or a snippet of conversation with the Lewis Schaffer regulars. He was on first name terms with nearly all of the people who filtered into his show. It was like a tree-house gang.

Lenny Bruce, in his autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, wrote “As a child I loved confusion: a freezing blizzard that would stop all traffic and mail; toilets that would get stopped up and overflow and run down the halls; electrical failures – anything that would stop the flow and make it back up and find new direction. Confusion was entertainment to me.” Schaffer’s whole act operates on this notion of chaos – “I believe in chaos. [The whole thing] is training for chaos” – but it all seems so brilliantly aimless.

When Lenny Bruce utilized stream of consciousness and exploratory improvisation – in the jazz-club-patois that he helped to popularise – he always had an ulterior motive. It was a device to dent taboos or rile up the audience with its incessantness; it was used to rouse a state of righteous indignation so he can could highlight the hypocrisy of the righteous. Bruce was the hero with a bundle full of soliloquies. Schaffer is pure comedy. There doesn’t appear to be any social or political incentive; it’s all about answering Schaffer’s often repeated mantra: “Is that funny?”

Richard Zoglin, an American journalist and author, said that the cardinal rule of comedy is “Don’t ever be standing on the same level as the tables.”

The Source Below is a tiny venue run by two Brazilians (one Brazilian/Italian; one Brazilian/German). The “stage” is just another section of floor in front of the 30/35 seats and lit up by a spotlight. Lewis stands there with his microphone and fluctuates between a strained holler forced through inflamed vocal chords (when he chides the audience or slips into mock-American jingoism – “It’s called the World Series! Because it’s our world!”) and a quiet, subdued voice when he’s trying to coax his tree-house gang into loving him.

Psychoanalyst and author, Darian Leader, writes this about hypomania: “[What] distinguished manic-depression from other forms of psychosis, where the person may construct a virtual, distant or internal addressee [is that the manic-depressive] has [to have] a real listener right there in front of them. And yet there is something tenuous, desperate even, about how the manic person maintains their interlocutor, as if they [have to keep] them there at all costs, like a nightclub entertainer who has to keep his audience focused on himself at all times.”

When Lewis climbs on a chair in the front row and begs for his audience’s attention like a dinner party host trying to initiate party games, Leader may well have seen a bit of Lewis is that “nightclub entertainer.”

Lewis has got that same metaphysical motive as Shakespeare’s characters – to make the audience know that he exists – but he does it with a couple of adlibs about the smell of corn and biofuel manufacturing. These go nowhere. They mean nothing. They are Dusty Cup.

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David McGillivray: from cheap sex films to horror movies, art and panto scripts

David McGillivray accosted yesterday by Halloween ghoul

David McGillivray (left) yesterday with a Halloween ghoul

David McGillivray is only a few years old than me, but I first became aware of him when I was in my late teens or early twenties and he was writing excellent film reviews for the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin.

He quickly got involved in the 1970s British sex film industry, writing such epics as I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight and The Hot Girls, then shifting into horror scripts for quickie film directors Norman J.Warren and Pete Walker and, later still, writing and producing his own films.

“I used to love being scared when I was a child,” he told me yesterday – Halloween – in Soho, “and I greatly enjoy frightening other people. I’ve only really ever been interested in sensation.”

“What was your best film?”

“Shorts or long?”

“Both.”

“Of the shorts, I’m very fond of one called Mrs Davenport’s Throat, which I made in Lisbon in 2005. It’s got a surprise ending that I don’t think anyone’s ever guessed.”

“You wrote and produced that?”

“Yes. It was inspired by those people at airports who stand holding cards with people’s names on. In my film, the eponymous Mrs Davenport goes up to a chauffeur who is holding a sign saying MRS DAVENPORT and goes off with him and we find out what happens to her. It’s not a pretty sight.”

“You said that with a smile.”

“It’s good fun.”

“And your favourite feature film?”

Exactly the sort of film young David wanted to write

Exactly the sort of film young David McGillivray had always wanted to write

“I never watch any of my films apart from House of Whipcord. That was my first big one for Pete Walker. I saw it again at a horror festival in Edinburgh about two years ago and thought it stood up quite well.

“I was a very young writer – I was 25. I read an outline of the story and it was exactly the sort of film I had always wanted to write and Pete Walker got together a marvellous cast. It was terrifically exciting for me. Suddenly here I was part of the film business that I’d always been so fond of.

“I think House of Whipcord is Pete Walker’s best film, though some people prefer Frightmare.”

“He seemed to suddenly disappear off the radar,” I said.

“He just decided to stop working,” explained David, “and nobody really knows why. He had the money to continue and he could have gone on making films. He didn’t completely disappear: he ran a chain of provincial cinemas called Picturedrome for a while but now, as far as I know, he really is completely retired. I haven’t seen him since 1992.”

“Is he worthy of rediscovery?” I asked. “Or are his films just tacky?”

“I have said,” David told me, “that he was Britain’s most talented exploitation director. As soon as a Pete Walker film starts, you know instantly it’s his. He had a very distinct style. He was a talented storyteller. He knew how to include the exploitation elements. I think it’s a great shame he isn’t still working. He just decided he didn’t want to do it any more. He didn’t need to make money; he was very rich.”

“Rich from the films?” I asked,. “Or rich independently?”

“Rich from property,” said David. “He made a lot of money from his early films: little 8mm ‘glamour’ loops sold either by mail order or in newsagents, often under-the-counter.”

“Soft-core?” I asked.

Not as successful as the sex films

Not as successful as Pete Walker’s sex films?

“Oh yes, all very soft core. They were basically striptease films. He made a lot of money from those and then his early full-length sex films made money. There were several people in the same market – Harrison Marks and Stanley Long were two rivals. Pete’s early sex films were very successful. Then he started making his so-called ‘terror’ films, which were less popular. All of those people made a fair amount of money out of nudie and sex films.”

“When you were young,” I asked, “did you want to make art films?”

“No,” said David firmly. “I never wanted to do anything arty and I never have done. I’ve got no ability, I’ve got no taste, no style. I’m a hack.”

David’s current film production company is called Pathetique Films. It uses the slogan Curiouser and Curiouser.

“But you appreciate arty movies, so you have taste,” I told him.

“I’ve got no ability. I really haven’t,” he replied.

“But,” I said, “you can write and you’ve seen enough movies to know what images need to be edited together to have an effect, so you can work backwards and know what material has to be shot to create the end result you want.”

“This is like a conversation I was having yesterday, about the difference between art and design,” David said, holding up a teaspoon. “What is this? It has been designed to look good, but is it art or is it just design?… It is design.

“My films are not art. They’re just product designed to give people a bit of a thrill in whatever way is possible.”

“But what you’re describing,” I argued, “is a Shakespeare play – a commercial product that’s aimed at a specific audience – almost lowest-common-denominator. Shakespeare was creating something to give the plebs in the pit a laugh. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are there to give people a laugh in Hamlet; there’s blood all over the place in Macbeth; there are things flying around and thunderstorms and a shipwreck (or is it two?) in The Tempest. I’m sure if I went in a time machine and watched Shakespeare plays as seen by the original audience, it would be like watching a down-market farce or an exploitation movie.”

“Well, yes,” David agreed. “Shakespeare’s plays were aimed at ‘the ordinary folk’ and wouldn’t have been considered Art in their day. Maybe one day, long after we’re dead and gone, the public will decide that my films are Art.”

“But the public didn’t decide Shakespeare is art,” I said, “It was people who wrote books about him. Critics decide. Critics would say The Tempest is art and the movie Forbidden Planet is a commercial Hollywood science fiction product, but the film is based on the play.”

“Well,” said David, “I would call Forbidden Planet art, because it’s a wonderful creation and it works and it scared the living daylights out of me when I was 7 or 8. When the footprints appear in the sand, made by the invisible monster, I was so frightened I remember distinctly I couldn’t look at the screen and I hid my face in my school cap. That film had an enormous effect on me and it’s a very artistic endeavour indeed.”

“But looked at objectively,” I said, “Shakespeare  is basically lowest common denominator sex, violence and comedy – much like The Bible in that respect. Reviewers thought Hitchcock’s Psycho was unforgivably down-market, repulsive and sadistic when it was released, yet people would probably think Psycho was a work of art now.”

“Definitely,” agreed David, “Well, any film by Hitchcock.”

“Or Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom,” I said. “It was said at the time to be obscenely sadistic and it destroyed his entire career. But now it’s Art. I avoided seeing it for years because Time Out said it was a simile for the voyeurism of the cinema-going experience – It sounded unbearably arty and a load of wank. But, when I saw it, it IS a great film and, arguably, Time Out was right.”

“It’s not bad, is it…” said David.

“You must want to write Art,” I told him, “You want to create things and you want to create the best possible thing you can and that is Art and, if it has a big effect on a big audience like Harry Potter, then all the better, surely?”

“This is a very vexed issue,” replied David, “and goes back to what is and isn’t Art. I’ve really only ever wanted to create something that is going to have some sort of an effect on people. I don’t want to create something that’s going to be ignored, that’s going to sit on a shelf and not be seen. I don’t particularly mind what the critics say. I don’t care if they hate my stuff – and a lot of them do. All I want in years to come is for people to watch my films and enjoy them in the same way I enjoy the most rubbishy, churned-out second features. If I can create anything like Night of the Demon or, indeed, Night of the Eagle, I’d be very, very happy.”

“Well,” I said, “everyone’s making B films now – the Star Wars movies, the Indiana Jones movies, Quentin Tarantino’s movies. They’re all basically making crappy low-budget B films on a big budget – Crap becoming Art.”

“Yes,” agreed David, “they’re making wheat out of chaff.”

“They’ve making wheat out of chaff for chavs,” I suggested. “What are you making next?”

David McGillivray yesterday, by a rubbish bin in London - He suggested the bin

David McGillivray yesterday, by a rubbish bin in London’s West End  – He suggested the bin

“It’s panto time,” said David. “It’s a very busy time. This year I’ve contributed to four. I don’t write them, I only re-write them depending on who’s in them. My regular employer is Julian Clary – I’ve re-written his pantos for several years and, through him, I’ve met other people like Nigel Havers. I’m just finishing re-writing Robin Hood, which is in Plymouth this year. And I’ve re-written part of Snow White for Gok Wan in Birmingham. I love panto. I think that’s my true forte.”

“You knew Julian Clary before the pantos?”

“Yes, I’ve worked with him for 31 years. I’ve never written an entire show. He’s known for his improvisation. He Julianises what I put together as, indeed, do other comedians I’ve worked for.”

“Such as?”

“Paul O’Grady, Greg Proops, Angus Deayton…”

At this point, a man dressed in a white Halloween costume and wearing a Scream movie mask came into the restaurant where we were sitting.

“That is an example of the opposite of what we were talking about,” said David. “That is Art turned into crap… Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream now turned into one of the worst franchises in horror movie history…”

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Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen – all of them bad at the English language

(This blog was later re-published in the Huffington Post)

I posted a blog (or did I?) the other day.

Someone on Google+ took offence (or did he?) and posted (or did he?) this comment:

“no offense,” he wrote, “but can we stop calling blog posts and blog articles ‘blogs’? unless you actually are composing an entire collection of articles and posts each time you say you’ve written ‘a blog’, you’re really not using the correct term and are just coming off as uninformed and just desperately trying to drop a buzzword (albeit incorrectly).”

I am not sure about this.

He is, I presume an American, because he wrote “no offense” instead of the British English “no offence”. I have a suspicion the problem may be an example of two nations separated by a common language – even in cyberspace.

I am sure I have commonly seen and heard in the UK, the word “blog” used both for the collection within which the “posts” are… erm… posted… and for the individual blogs… erm… posts… themselves.

But, some might think surprisingly, I am no great upholder of ‘correctness’ in writing. If you get too hung up on the niceties of what is ‘correct’ and what is ‘not correct’, things can get pretty mind-numbingly dull, as I am about to prove…

I think the French are mad to have an academic body which decides what words and phrases are or are not ‘correct’ French. They are mad to try stopping ‘Franglais’.

The nearest thing we have in Britain is the Oxford English dictionary which decides to include not what it thinks is ‘correct’ English but what has become common usage.

The sentence, “Men and women competed in a quiz with a £1,000 prize but the rules stated that, when the single eventual winner received THEIR money, THEY had to donate it to charity,” is clearly grammatically incorrect, because “winner” is singular but “their” and “they “ are both plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary decided several years ago that the use of “they” and “their” in this sort of sentence structure was “acceptable” usage simply because it had been so commonly used for years by everyone. The alternative would be saying “he or she” and “his or hers” instead of “they” and “their” every time the circumstance cropped up and your tongue and brain would go potty after a time.

In English, ‘good’ English is ultimately whatever way English speakers actually speak and write the language. The French are heading towards a dead language; ironically, they are stifling it by trying to protect it.

The English language is a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe. No-one actually organises the over-all thing, anyone can join in and it becomes all the more vibrant for it.

It is anarchy, but it works.

Shakespeare could not even spell his own name the same way every time he wrote it – he used various spellings. As far as I understand it, English spelling had no need to be uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary in 1755 – and, even now, we are in the anarchic position of having “humour” and “humor” and “colour” and “color” being correct in different places and how the fuck did “programme” and “program” and “aluminium” and “aluminum” ever come about? They’re relatively new concepts!

I share comedian Stewart Lee’s horror at the constant mis-use of apostrophes though it is a losing battle and what gets up my own personal nasal passages is the mis-use of commas around subordinate clauses and in lists.

If you have a list of A, B, C, D, and E there should be no comma before the “and” because, in a list, the commas represent “and”s – that’s what they are, so it should be A, B, C, D and E (without the fourth comma).

But I think Americans have a different usage and the comma is correct in the US.

The abbreviation Mr for Mister should never have a full stop (i.e, Mr.) because the full stop represents an abbreviation as in etc. which has a full stop because the “etera” has been cut out. It’s like the apostrophe in “don’t” or “wasn’t” – it shows there is a missing letter or letters.

People lament the change wrought in the language by the arrival of text messaging.

But who cares?

Shakespeare wrote in what was virtually a foreign language.

Chaucer certainly bloody well did.

Even some of the Victorian novelists are a bit heavy-going nowadays.

The English language is constantly changing, which is what makes it so vibrant.

I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s, writing scripts for TV voice-overs to read in Czech – a neat trick, as I did not speak, write nor understand Czech. The scripts were translated into Czech and I then had to direct the recording of the Czech-language voice-overs – giving the TV announcers direction on intonation and suchlike – another neat trick.

On several occasions, the translator came back to me and said: “I can’t translate this exactly, because I can’t translate the nuance. Czech has fewer words than English and I can’t translate what I know you want to say.”

It is like the (apparently untrue) story that Eskimos (sorry, Inuits) have 30-odd words for “snow” and we have only five or six.

English is a wonderful language because it is so rich but also because it is so fast-changing. And long may it continue to be so.

Language is about communication not rules.

According to an Oxford University professor who has seen her original manuscripts, Jane Austen was shit at grammar and crap at spelling. I happen to think she wrote dull novels as well (apart from Emma). Others disagree with me on that. But she is an example that great writers are about ideas not linguistic rules.

Grammar and punctuation can be ‘cleaned up’ by a sub-editor.

Clear ideas are what matter.

Now, if only someone could come up with a word to replace the valuable lost meaning of “gay”…

What a great word was lost there…

I am sure Jane Austen used it.

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Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow… No, it’s not about the death of Steve Jobs. It’s about the death of my father.

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, there were reports of how Apple boss Steve Jobs died, as told by his sister:

“His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone whose luggage was already strapped onto the vehicle, who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us. He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze…

“His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful. I could feel him counting his steps again, pushing farther than before. This is what I learned: he was working at this, too. Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it.

“His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude. He seemed to be climbing. But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

“Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

“Steve’s final words were: ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

I remember my father’s death, ten years ago, in June 2001. It was the same but different. You might want to re-read the description of Steve Jobs’ death after you finish reading what is below.

The day my father died I had been staying out at my parents’ bungalow in Clacton, on the Essex coast but, that afternoon, I was in London for my own two-hour medical check-up at King’s Cross. London was sweltering in extraordinarily hot weather but, inside the building, it was cool and relaxing.

I sent an e-mail to my friend Lynn:

“After my check-up, the doctors told me I am getting into the start of being dangerously overweight and very slightly too cholesterolly. I do wonder if it was really necessary for the short Chinese gent to put his finger up my bottom to test for prostate cancer. Surely there must be another way to do this or was he just ‘avin’ a larf? After all, this is the 21st century; we landed men on the moon last century.”

The rest of this blog is what I wrote in my diary the next day, a decade ago:

Tuesday 26th June 2001

I phoned my mother around 6.00pm and she told me that, when she had visited my father in the afternoon, there had been no response to anything she said. His eyes were open but staring ahead.

“I think he was drugged up to the eyeballs,” she told me. “I don’t think he’s in any pain.”

Later, the matron told me the medication he was on was not that strong and that they had not given him a daytime tablet to avoid making him zombie-like.

At around 8.30pm, I was mowing the grass on my front garden. The matron phoned me on my mobile to tell me my father had deteriorated very badly and I arranged to leave at 10.00pm, to get to the nursing home around 11.30pm, telling my mother I was getting home at 1.00am and not to wait up for me. I was going to see how he was as 11.30pm and decide what to do.

The matron rang back at 9.30pm to tell me the doctor had just been and said my father only had four to five hours left before he died, so I went immediately, told my mother I had been phoned by the matron and asked if she want to go to the home to see my father.

She said (quite rightly) No, with a sad, tired, tone to her voice, and I phoned her just after 11.05pm when I had gone in and seen my father briefly. I suggested my mother take her two nightly sleeping tablets and go to bed and I would stay with my father all night and phone her at 7.00pm when she got up. She knew it was terminal because she had told me where the undertaker was. There was some surprise in her voice when I phoned her:

“Is he still here?” she asked.

When I had arrived, the night sister Shirley warned me he had deteriorated a lot since my mother had seen him in the afternoon and she warned me “his eyes are open”.

The first thing that shocked me when the door was opened, though, was the sound. I had never realised the words ‘death rattle’ were anything more than a colourful phrase. But they are an exact description. I had also thought it was a brief final sound rather than an ongoing sound.

It was a rhythmic, rasping sound.

His face was side-lit in the darkened room by a yellow-cream glow from a bedside table lamp sitting not on a table but on the floor of the room with old-fashioned floral wallpaper. It was lit like a Hammer horror movie of the late 1950s in slightly faded Technicolor.

His bed was behind the door and when I saw him lying there on his back in bed I was shocked again because his face was like Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream.

His false teeth were out, so his mouth was abnormally small considering it was open to its fullest extent, the skin between his upper lip and nose seemed wider than normal; and there was an indented line on his nose between his nostrils which, in profile, made him look like he had two noses.

He was lying on his back staring straight up at the ceiling with wide open, unblinking eyes as if he was shocked by something he saw on the ceiling. His head was tilted back slightly from his torso as if his head had been dropped into the soft pillow from a great height.

This tilted-back head, the shocked eyes, the open mouth all combined to make it look like he was frozen in a silent scream yet the sound coming out was a death rattle from his throat, as the air mattress beneath him made discreet little isolated cracking sounds presumably caused by the slight movements as his body made the rattling rasping breathing and his distended stomach rose and fell under the bedclothes.

The rattle was like a machine breathing through a very slightly echoey plastic tube partially blocked by air bubbles in water. I wondered if he was dead already, inside. It was as if his brain or heart must be telling his throat and chest to desperately gasp for air even though they knew it was pointless.

Towards the end, the rattle became less pronounced as the sound of the breaths within the rattle became slightly more human.

Towards the very end, the rattle slowly died out and human light breathing returned, getting gentler and gentler as the life ebbed away. When the breathing ended, I pressed the buzzer for night sister Shirley.

When she arrived, there was some slight breathing again, but only for 40 or 60 seconds. For perhaps the last 15 seconds of his life, his mouth – until now rigidly open – partially closed then reopened three times, then his eyes slowly closed, his mouth partially closed and reopened twice more and he was dead, his eyes closed and mouth open. It was 00.35am and 22 seconds on Wednesday morning. I had arrived at about 11.03pm.

After he died, I went downstairs to the nursing home office with Shirley, whose father-in-law had died in the same room – Room 11 – of the same disease. I then went back up to the room where my father lay for 15 or 20 seconds during which time there were a couple of tiny surreal flashes through the window from the outside world.

When I went outside to my car, the black sky was flashing white with lightning. Every few seconds, the whole night-time sky was silently flashing white with increasing – but still silent – violence. On the drive back to my parents’ bungalow in Great Clacton, the flashes became whiter and more frequent and the thunder sound arrived. On the drive beside their front garden, small surreal white specks were being blown across the tarmac. When I got out of the car at my parents’ – now my mother’s – house, there was a neon-like flash of vertical lightning and a sound of rustling which continued for 60 or 90 seconds.

I took my bags inside the bungalow and then the rain started. Torrential rain thundering on the streets and windows and roof. Violent and angry rain.

It all struck me as unfathomably dramatic. My father’s death… then immediately the heavens in turmoil… then strong winds… then thunder crashes and angry, violent rain… As if the heavens, in turmoil, were protesting.

It reminded me of Julius Caesar.

I looked up the quote later:

There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

My father was a very ordinary man. Yet it was like the heavens were protesting.

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Other creatures’ lives: Charlie Chuck and Elsie the duck who sits on his head

Yesterday, I drove up to Leicestershire to take photographs of comedian Charlie Chuck with his ducks. Well, they are not his ducks. They are his girlfriend’s ducks.

It is not a quiet nor a simple life having 21 ducks, two dogs, an occasional fox and Charlie Chuck in your back garden. Because they have to be mostly kept apart for safety reasons.

There are four females ducks, four very large males and 13 newly-born ducklings.

The four males have to be kept separate to stop them leaping on the four females, grabbing them violently by the back of their necks and making what Shakespeare almost called the duck with two backs.

The four females and 12 ducklings can be left to roam but need careful shepherding in case they make a bolt for the wrought-iron side gate and, from there, the front garden and road.

And then there is Elsie.

Elsie was a sickly duckling, excluded from the family nest which was in a large wooden dog house. She was tended by Charlie Chuck’s girlfriend’s grown-up son and has bonded with him and humans not ducks. She does not like water except to drink. She refuses to swim. And, if she goes outside when the other ducklings are around, they attack her. But she will settle on human shoulders – especially Charlie Chuck’s – like a miniature would-be pirate’s parrot.

And on his head.

If no human is available, she will follow the nearest mother substitute available – usually Billy the Jack Russell dog belonging to Charlie Chuck’s girlfriend. Of a night-time, Elsie would ideally like to sleep with Billy the Jack Russell dog, but Billy does not want this, so he tries to avoid the arrangement by running away, resulting in a regular circular chase round a tree in the back garden, with Billy pursued by Elsie in the twilight.

And then there is Charlie Chuck’s dog Ollie the collie who never barks at home but who does when he visits Charlie Chuck’s girlfriend’s home and hears Billy the Jack Russell dog bark.

And then there is the occasional fox, kept at bay at night by Charlie Chuck’s girlfriend’s grown-up son with a catapult in an upstairs window.

And then there is Charlie Chuck.

At home, the books on Charlie Chuck’s bookshelf include all the children’s stories written by C.S.Lewis, the autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake by Malcolm Hardee (he drowned) and The Paranormal: A Bishop Investigates by theologian Hugh Montefiore who was born a Sephardic Jew but who became the Church of England’s Bishop of Birmingham 1977-1987. He (Montefiore) converted to Christianity as a 16-year-old schoolboy when he had a vision of Christ while sitting in his study at Rugby school.

Jesus was a Jew who never converted to Christianity.

It can be a complicated world.

There are pictures of Charlie Chuck with Elsie the duck on my Facebook page here.

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Ian Hinchliffe: “You’ll never work here again” – Never any point asking WHY!

It is not often that a celebration of someone’s life includes a tribute by a belly dancer, four people smashing wine glasses with small hammers and two people with blood capsules in their mouths eating beer glasses with the result that apparent glass and blood spews down onto the stage, but Ian Hinchliffe was the sort of performance artist/comic/artist/musician/absurdist in whose memory this seemed an almost understated tribute.

Ian drowned while fishing on a lake in Arkansas on 3rd December last year.

An obituary written by his friends said he “was a performer who could bring a sense of menace, unpredictability and a surreal/absurd humour into any creative arena, unrivalled by any other artist of his time.”

He was indisputably – and perhaps again this understates the reality – mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Roger Ely was a friend and occasional co-performer. He organised yesterday’s six-hour event Ian Hinchliffe: The Memorial at Beaconsfield arts studio in London. As part of his tribute, Roger said Ian was “one of the most loveable people and one of the most difficult people” he had ever met. “He could be an evil sod,” he added, but one who created occasional “pieces of genius”.

Writer and performer Jim Sweeney was too Ill to be there yesterday, but sent a tribute saying: “He was the best of drunks and he was the worst of drunks.”

Dave Stephens is now a sculptor but was originally a performance artist often credited as an early forerunner of alternative comedy. He said that, in the early days performing with Ian, the routine was to “go down the pub, get pissed and see what happens”.

There were colourful reminiscences aplenty, including a tale of furniture being thrown out of a pub window and, when people went in to discover why, they found Ian with porridge coming out of his trousers because he was simulating an abortion.

I only met Ian a handful of times but, when I got chatting to Lois Keidan who was Director of Live Arts at the ICA in the 1990s, she told me he had once set fire to his own foot there. Why he did that she had no idea. But Why was perhaps always an unnecessary and unanswerable question in Ian Hinchliffe’s life.

Lois also told me a story about police going into the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and saying to the staff: “There’s a man outside doing strange things in the roadworks.”

“Oh,” the police were told, “that’s just Ian Hinchliffe. It’s art.”

The police, to do them justice, apparently accepted this answer though exactly what “strange things” he was doing remain lost in the mists of anecdote.

At Beaconsfield yesterday, Simon Miles and Pete Mielniczek did a tribute performance in which a small plastic skull, perhaps not irrelevantly, quoted those famous lines from the Scottish play…

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

The indomitable Tony Green told a true story about Ian Hinchliffe performing at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith and, not for the first time, Ian was naked. He got hold of a chair and cut about three inches off one of its legs so it was unstable. He then got a broom handle and broke it in half. He managed to stuff about six inches of it up his arsehole, leaving half a broom handle protruding. He then balanced a full pint of beer on the chair, put both hands on the sides of the chair, leant forward so that his genitalia were in the pint of beer and lifted his feet off the ground so he was balancing.

“You’ll never work here again,” he was told afterwards.

I presume the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith was not the first venue to have told him that.

There is a YouTube video of Ian Hinchliffe performing in 1990 here.

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