“O Captain, My Captain” – My Day Back at School

This evening, I have to make a speech to some school leavers. I am rummaging around my head, working out what I want to say to the young and hopeful that may be of any importance whatsoever. I am not an original thinker, the best I can be is a scrapbook of other people’s ideas, a compilation tape of cover versions of philosophies and discoveries.

The freeness of my thought may be limited by my experience and influences, there are hidden walls around my curiosity, and if I am fortunate and concentrate, I can peer over them every now and again.

I have made a list of trigger words, now I just have to retrieve some sentences that will illustrate them in an interesting enough way that the students won’t be more interested in fiddling with the hardening chewing gum stuck under their municipal chairs.

Dogma, empathy, curiosity, altruism.

That is a start.

Some hours later…

The students were dressed in their best suits, skirts, and pointed shoes. My teacher friend, Charlie, or Mr D as he is to his pupils complimented some he saw on their use of a comb, something which had clearly been a rarity when they sat in his class. I have known Charlie since he our own schooldays, and his shirt is more untucked now than it was when we were thirteen. Neither of us were much good at sartorial elegance in childhood, and this has not changed with middle age.

I stood at the podium, having been introduced as Charlie’s “longtime companion”, which made me feel rather like I was being played by Dirk Bogarde, and I started talking.
As with most gigs, as I sat down again, I remembered what I had meant to say.

What I did recall, was the human ability for delayed gratification.
We live in times where much is immediately available.
We don’t have to wait for Christmas to smell satsumas.
We don’t need to search endless record racks until your fingertips are blisters to find that new, weird song you heard on the late night radio.
Miss anything, then you can catch up with it.

But it’s the ability to wait, if you still can, that can bring the greatest reward. Never mind waiting twenty minutes for a second marshmallow, can you wait fifty years. A young Peter Higgs comes up with a good idea, and it is good enough to lead to a lot of digging under Switzerland, the manufacture of machines almost beyond the imaginations of human beings, and eventually the sending round of bundles of particles at speeds near that of light. And old Peter Higgs wells up as he sits in an auditorium and hears the results of a grand experiment that means the young Peter Higgs really had a very, very good idea.

I was eight years old when Voyager, the fastest moving human-made machine, was launched into space, carrying with it a golden record that shows glimpses of what happens on a planet that holds life, just in case it is intercepted by an interested extraterrestrial. I was 43 years old when that left our solar system. It still has a long way to go. How far will it get? What life will be on this planet if it is ever found by another creature seeking a new holiday destination?

I meant to say “don’t hold on to your beliefs so rigorously that you will neither scrutinise them or re-evaluate them when new ideas are offered to you”.

I suggested they investigate their own minds with a marigold glove, a brush and friend. This is all you need to perform the rubber hand illusion and see someway into how your mind puts together its image of the world. And I asked them to stare in the bathroom mirror and see what monsters or aged beings they were turned into via the Caputo effect.

I forgot to tell them about the gorilla that has started to surreptitiously unscrew its cage at the zoom and decide it was best not to tell them how a bee’s waggle dance changes if you give it a little cocaine.
“Honestly officer, I only have this bag of class A drugs to investigate the brains of my bees”.

I told them that even the greatest scientists still get people to play the bassoon to earthworms when they are intrigued (Charles Darwin and his Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms)

I didn’t tell them about a beautiful moment in the documentary of the Young at Heart.
The aged choir are talking of near death and death experiences, and the choirmaster asks one lady who has previously died for a minute or so, “did you see the light?”
And she smiles, and replies, “I didn’t look”.

Don’t take your self-consciousness, your existence, and your clean water, for granted, was roughly the message.

The highlight was not me, but the reaction to Mr D. He has seen this group through their school years from 11 to 16, and he bid them farewell. He was the true illustration of empathy and altruism. Before the event, the fondness he had for the pupils, and they had for him, was clear as he wandered through packed corridors. His voice cracked a little as he said goodbye to them, and as he walked back to his chair, the hundreds in the hall whopped, and cheered, and gave him a lengthy standing ovation. Our education system, and the teachers within it, are frequently maligned, but here was a teacher who has clearly had a great effect on many he has helped through one of the most difficult and confusing times of their lives.

It is the closest I have seen to a real “O Captain, my Captain” moment from Dead Poet’s Society. I told that to Charlie, and he blushed a little and told me to fuck off. “Longtime companions” do that sort of thing.

the sequel to the Nine Lessons Christmas shows are now on sale, with guests including Mary Beard (15th) , Stewart Lee (17th and 21st), Josie Long and many, many more https://www.thebloomsbury.com/event/run/141215

and if you are seeking some Christmas ghost stories, Dead Funny is now available with stories by Reece Shearsmith, Charlie Higson, Sara Pascoe, Stewart Lee, Katy Brand etc  http://saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773761

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The Socialist Search for the Lilliputian Yorkshire Pudding…and the pheromones of Farage

When the mainstream media left asks what has become of the Labour Party, it fails to notice that it has also lost its stomach for a fight and chosen to hang around gallery openings, waving at Grayson Perry while eating very small Yorkshire puddings with a small piece of curled beef in it. I wonder if it thinks everyone else lives of shrunken snacks on trays? I have nothing against small snacks, some of my best friends have eaten pastry the size of a thumbnail and garnished with possible cheese, and sometimes I see my face reflected in the bubble I am in. (I would like to make it clear that was not a dig at Grayson Perry who I find far more interesting and radical on culture and politics than most who fester and feast in the political world).

Everything is showbiz nowadays. It’s a short step from being a grotesque and loathed politician, to presenting documentaries on knitting and kittens. The knitting and kitten experts must regret not spending more time in the public eye chaining women in labour to radiators, maybe they’d be on telly too.

Pootling in a service station, on a dark night’s venturing to Totton, I picked up the New Statesman. Once presumed to be the photo negative Spectator and a home to John Pilger and other left wing firebrands, I was interested to see what they had done with their cover star, Nigel Farage. Not so long ago, he was seen as a comedy character of the right, a well-spoken Andy Capp, but, just as Eastenders have knack of turning their villains to cuddly characters when new plots need them regenerated for the purpose of narrative arc, Farage is now a serious political face in a Leni Riefenstahl remake of Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

And everyone, except James O Brien, seems to find him alluring. I don’t know what the secret of his pheromones is, but they are very effective.

The New Statesman interview infuriated me because it wasn’t inquisitive. It acted as a reminder that, in the popular publication and newspaper world, the rebellious and the curious and the left are almost dead. It is all middle ground, even though the middle ground is now far more on the right than it once was. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher, in the last use of our scientific background, dabbled with the tectonic plates beneath us.

This was a milksop interview.

The first few paragraphs mix tittle tattle and first draft scene setting from a novel destined to be left in a drawer. We met “a pleasant middle aged woman called Lizzie”. She makes some tea. She is “courteous and charming” and “motivated by contempt”.

Nigel Farage “strides in purposefully”, it is pointed out that he “is not wearing a black or a brown shirt”. They talk about cricket. Both The Journalist and Farage like it. We have the appearance of Farage sketched for us. He is slim, his eyes are bulbous.

It is noted that Farage, unlike many other politicians interviewed by the journalist, is curious. The iJournalist (I realise that by writing this, destined to be read by a few hundred, I am unlikely to be asked back to write anything for the New Statesman), seems less curious. Farage’s words are rarely scrutinised or questioned.
He notes that talking with Nigel is like chatting to an opinionated bloke in the pub, and he guesses that may be his appeal. Didn’t we know?

As I read on, I fumed, “where were the questions?” This might well have been a transcript of a Loose Women interview, just lacking the incite of Colleen Nolan.

“Farage would say that much of this dissatisfaction is being caused by the elite, anti democratic project that is the European Union, with its commitment to open borders and centrally imposed austerity on the weaker peripheral nations of the Eurozone. You know the arguments”.

Most of the arguments I see on telly and in the papers seem to go no further than, “bloody Brussels”, now you have him in a room (the air is stale in the room, I forgot to mention), let’s find out the specific problems and let’s hear the alternatives. It can’t just be, “then we leave the EU and everyone feels better and we all live happily ever after”.

Farage talks about people “believing in us”, but then isn’t asked, “what exactly are they believing in?”

He informs The Journalist that when we get the control of our country back, then we get proper democracy. Farage asks why no one is debating employment legislation, but is not asked what changes he wants to make to employment legislation. (I am also confused by UKIP’s dismissal of a house of commons filled with career politicians, and their delight when those career politicians bail out of their old parties and join UKIP)

It’s a long interview that replicates what we know of his popular image. He likes a beer and a fag, he is less certain on Eastern Europeans, oh and he has “a pale, lumpy length of flesh” under one of his trouser legs. Maybe Nigel Farage is one of the few interesting humans in politics. This interview continues to strengthen the cult of his personality, but The Journalist doesn’t interrogate or enlighten. Has this part of a presumed left given up, or does it not believe in enough to be bothered anyway. There will still be small Yorkshire puddings under a UKIP/Conservative coalition, and you can still probably wave at Grayson Perry.

I remain on tour – Exeter, Coventry, Dublin, Banbury, Edinburgh and on http://www.robinince.com also more Christmas science shows at http://www.thebloomsbury.com with guests including Mary Beard, Stewart Lee, Josie Long and Andrea Sella.

The Smiths special Vitriola music podcast part 2 is here https://soundcloud.com/vitriolamusic/vitriola-8-and-linda-mccartneys-coming-round-as-well

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The Poltergeist that was Mince and Onion… haunting mince and onion

Last night, I was kept wake by the smell of mince.
The smell of mince had first come into my day as I approached lunch at the BBC cafeteria.
It smelt liked mince cooked in an armpit. Once it was in my mind, I couldn’t shift it. It was mince than clung to fibre. I am sure it was not knitted into the fabric of my cardigan after i walked close to it, but the imagined mince remained with me in the green room and during the recording of our “far harder than you might imagine” show about plants. I think I can handle my quantum behaviour more easily without stalks and leaves.

When I got home, it turned out there had been a grand simmering of mince. The mince had reached into all corners of the house. It hung in the spiders’ webs and the cushions.
I went to bed. Annoyingly, I had been thinking of insomnia, and so, as if hailed by my thoughts, it gladly arrived, and I spent a night twitching and sometimes hypnogogic.
The mince was now a ghost. It’s small started to sicken me (I don’t eat mince). In daylight, it wouldn’t have sickened me, but once the insomnia has begun, the innocuous can become revolting and hateful. You find something to justify your inability to sleep, and you obsess about it, while at the same time, constantly telling yourself to stop obsessing about it. Do not think of a pink polar bear, and there it is.

The accompaniment to the spectre of mince was a soundtrack of The King Blues in my lobe jukebox, and images of Minion Rush, the spin off game from Despicable Me. I have started to play it excessively. I don’t know why, I don’t enjoy it. I swear at it each time I fail to freeze ray enough items or leap over enough electric fences to get to the next level, but I must keep going. It is “I can’t go on. I must go on. I’ll go on” for a generation reared on Donkey Kong, pathetic really.

The longer you are awake for, the more elements you can find that must keep you awake. You can feel each slowly digesting item in your belly. Every vague crack of expanding wood or contracting steel frame is startling. You are tuned into the world, but it is not enlightening, it is only infuriating. This is no Aldous Huxley becoming one with the table, this is everything in the atmosphere rejecting you. This is the body of your room attempting to expel you as it deems you to be an unsightly, diseased growth ruining it.

Well, that is how it feels at 4am. By dawn, it is done. The cracks and ticks and hums all immerse themselves back into the general structure of the day, hidden until it is dark and 3am again.

I am still on tour – Exeter, Barton. Banbury etc – also, doing two Christmas benefit shows with Brian Cox at Hammersmith, and new Christmas shows at The Bloomsbury with the likes of Mary Beard and Stewart Lee http://www.robinince.com for all details of all such things

and now, part 2 of our Smiths podcast https://soundcloud.com/vitriolamusic/vitriola-8-and-linda-mccartneys-coming-round-as-well

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Waiting for the Confirmation of Derision

We all have different thicknesses of carapace. With performers, some have carapaces of tensile steel, they possess a certainty which means that even the ugly gig or awry performance can be shrugged off. I have seen some who have almost died on their arse and they’ve still gone out to sell CDs or DVDs. Others, even after a long run of good shows, will descend into a muggy grey muck of a mood after a half dud gig. They have been found out. Everything must end. They are a failure.
The luck has run out, the truth is known.

It is an odd state of affairs. It suggests that a profession involving stranger scrutiny may not have been the wisest choice. the self disgust of personal failure may be minimised by working as an ironmonger or apothecary rather than being watched so beadily. Even when you don’t fall, you can replay it enough times that you eventually find the stumble and obsess over their judgmental eyes, lit up in the darkness by their luminous derision.
They probably didn’t notice, but you did.

You publicise your sense of failure, thinking it is honesty, when a little further back in your mind, though not as deep as your subconscious, it lurks – the pathetic wish that people say, “no, no, it was okay really”. It won’t make it okay, but it means you are sharing the fact that you know you are shit too, you didn’t think what you did was good. You may hate you more than they hate you.

Probably, they haven’t even given it a thought. Some dismissed it, others didn’t notice.

Silly really.

I wasn’t very good at the Monkey Cage recording tonight.

Don’t say a thing.

Anyway, I am listening to The King Blues’ My Boulder, and I am pogoing in my head.

I am off to Southend, Barton on Humber, Banbury, Belfast, Dublin, Coventry and on and on http://www.robinince.com

and part 2 of our Smiths Special Vitriola Podcast is up https://soundcloud.com/vitriolamusic/vitriola-8-and-linda-mccartneys-coming-round-as-well

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My Baby JG Ballard Days – stand ups and horror and why the two meet.

When it came to toys, I was the luckiest child. I didn’t have a Six Million Dollar Man doll or an Action Man tank, there was no Stretch Armstrong or Mousetrap, but I did have a real sheep’s skull, with a candle dripped into it. It was just like the ones on the covers of collections of black magic stories and it was real. My love of horror fiction began shortly after my eighth birthday. I used my book tokens to buy Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, heavy with images of Peter Cushing looking enigmatic, Christopher Lee trapped in hawthorns, and Lugosi and Karloff creeping each other out.

I was a morbid child, hanging around graveyards before The Smiths had even formed, terrified that I might get rabies, keen on melting the faces of my Action Men, constantly re-enacting car crashes like some baby-faced JG Ballard.

My horror love took up less of my time as my obsession with alternative comedy and more realistic fiction of human anxiety took hold. I would still go to each new John Carpenter, but had little interest in gore for gore’s sake genre. I like my imaginative fiction to imagine more than just the most bloody and disgusting way to release someone’s brain from the confines of their skull.

I read less James Herbert, but still returned to Edgar Allan Poe and MR James.

A few years ago, at a gig in Norwich, I met Johnny Mains, a horror aficionado and archivist. We kept in contact, and every so often, I would receive some entertaining 70s pulp fiction from his teetering collection. I had also taken to reading out from Guy N Smith’s superbly entertaining giant killer crab novels with live jazz accompaniment.

Hey, that’s variety.

While we were drinking one night, Johnny suggested a horror anthology made up of horror stories by stand up comedians. I was confident that a number of my friends could be easily persuaded. Comedy and horror go well together, as the work of the League of Gentleman and Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright have shown. Many stand ups have found their niche via an outsider position, not necessarily the most bullied at school, but rarely the most popular or captain of the football team. They are keen to retreat into a world of their own imaginings, whether that is to create stand up or stories. Many wish to take the world we live in and twist it, so horror is a natural fit. Horror was a place where many of us outsider kids hid, then comedy was the place where we found we could show ourselves.

The greatest horror for the authors was that the deadline occurred during the Edinburgh Fringe festival, an all immersive time of the year where you kid yourself that you can have some other form of life beyond perpetually showing off on a variety of stages in airless rooms. The squalid nature of the closets and cellars that come to life as Venue 7154 for the month of August echoing tales of Poe and HP Lovecraft. As I bumped into authors as we crossed over venues, their eyes would widen as if there was a murder of zombies on the horizon when I said, “I need the story by Tuesday”.

The end results mix gore and jollity and bleakness, surprisingly few tales involve the disemboweling of a critic, a sigh that the deadline was within the first week of the fringe. I have been told mine is rather disgusting, I hadn’t thought it was too fetid and morbid, lucky I am committing these crimes on paper.

The horror short story has some similarity to a routine, some are shaggy dog, some twisted observations, many have a punchline, though rather than slipping on a banana skin and hitting the lamp post, it is sliding on offal and falling into the satanic monstrosities mouth.

Why are so many comedians are attracted to horror? Is it that Many worlds interpretation of existence, another way of scrutinising all the what ifs, a relief that our world seems free of Cenobites, but the fizzy excitement that maybe there is one about to look right back at you when you close the bathroom cupboard. Even the rational can get a little antsy if walking alone through cemetery at midnight, how quickly those tombs take the shape of vengeful nuns when caught in the corner of an eye.
Horror and comedy are both ways of dissecting the world and holding it up to the light, sometimes viewing it with disgust, sometimes laughter, sometimes both. The comedian and horror writer can be shy rebels, they’ll never lead the revolution, but they’ll sadistically taunt the status quo and normality with words and twisted concepts.

Now some stand ups have revealed the devilment and tortured images in their mind, I wonder if that may put off the heckler a little more. You may not get a out down on the night, but rather end up in a re-enactment of The Vanishing with swanee whistles.

Dead Funny is available now http://saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773761

I am doing lots of Christmas science shows, some with Brian Cox HERE

Some with Tony Law, Mary Beard, Stewart Lee and all HERE

This article appeared, with better punctuation, in last week’s Big Issue.

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Has Your Inner Monologue Got an Accent?

I have two recurring thoughts that seem to be a daily event.

One, is while staring out of a train window, I look at all the trees and think about the remarkable variety of life on the planet. I look at the trees near Milton Keynes and, briefly and inexpertly, wonder about all the forms that have led to these, currently successful ones. Sometimes, I am annoyed by one of those big winter flies that seems even more stupid than the summer ones and whose collision with lampshades and windowpanes is even more distracting. I think I shouldn’t kill it as it is part of a long line of flies who have mutated this far into the centuries, and it seems to be a pity that this family line is ended after some human struggling with impatient swatting. But then I think, “ah fuck it, it’s just a fly. There’ll be no shortage.” (flash forward to a Ray Bradbury style story of sentient time machine using house fly that cam back to the 21st century to save the earth, but is squashed after having been hairsprayed to slow it down, thus leading to a terrible end for all life in the universe).

Second, I unfailingly think, “hmmm, it’s all going to end sometime”. I am briefly flummoxed by the annoyance that I will not start all the books in my house, and there will come a point where information doesn’t come into me or leave me. I become annoyed at all the time I waste, then find myself wasting more of it playing minion rush or arguing over nothing in particular. Imagining the world without you is tricky. It is an attempt to see yourself as a ghost watching your offspring helplessly and hopefully.

(Actually, there are a couple of others that are almost daily.
“You are sharing space with the public, put your headphones in or turn the volume of if you are listening to music, or a talking book read by Martin Jarvis, or, on this occasion as I type, watching bloody tennis”
“let them off the train first, and don’t cluster around the door so people can slowly funnel out. You do realise that is slowing your advance, not hastening it, you bloody solipsistic ninnies”)

There is a third thought that has started to crop up recently. What do my thoughts sound like. I don’t hear them as they were my voice, otherwise I’d cringe as I do when hearing a recording. The words are there. I can “hear” them while typing, but they don’t have an accent. They can, if I force myself to imagine it (I am typing in this in a Yorkshire accent, and now this as Peter Sellers in The Party, but I still can’t really “hear” anything).
I don’t see the words.
I am aware of the words.
It is disconcerting when you start to interrogate your inner monologue.
To hear it, but hear nothing, but it is there.

This is giving me a headache. I can feel my brain squinting. the inner eye is Lee Van Cleef in pain.

It seems using my inner monologue to think about my inner monologue is jarring it, and so jarring me I suppose. I think I’ll just go and stare at myself in the mirror until the Caputo Effect kicks in.

A new series of Christmas Science AND HISTORY shows at The Bloomsbury, including Tony Law and Mary Beard on 15th December, Stewart Lee on 17th and 21st and plenty more, including Vessels as the house band on 16th and 17th. Details here


New Vitriola podcast, a Smiths specials, though we might not get as far as The Smiths in this version https://soundcloud.com/vitriolamusic/vitriolaepisode7 (also on itunes)

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An Awfully Banal Adventure – I See No Portillo

Standing on the last off-peak train, cunningly disguised as peak due to the nose to hairline to toe to elbow to toe again proximity of the humans aboard, I made a rough headcount of my carriage. Somewhere between 100 and 110 it looked like, though I think there were some skulked and apologetic in the toilet too. Most were probably going between 16 and 20 miles from London. I reckon their average fair would have been £20. So all in all, at least £8000 of revenue on this 4 carriage train. I wondered how many would get as far as the reclaim form. We are experts in anger and frustration, but rank amateurs in seeing our frustration through to recompense. Imagine how much these companies would insist the
government gave them to ensure a payout for shareholders if we all kept demanding our money back. I have been told that Railtrack must pay up for inconvenience to the train companies many minutes before it is deemed that the passengers deserve a pay out.
The traveler is merely a required inconvenience in the business of profit.

Services from Euston seem to have been particularly dismal this Autumn. It might just be pattern seeking me, making a pattern out of the number of times I have reached a flesh flooded concourse and seen the “delayed”, “cancelled”, “delayed” lights of the indicator board. If only these lights could be fashioned to create a gallic shrug. The supposed tone and wording of the “apology” makes it all the more sarcastic. Did your mother tell you that you really had to mean your apology and that the apology was an acknowledgement that you would try harder? (does anyone know if there are fewer reserve crew members than there used to be? Seems once two trains are screwed, then the knock on effect goes on for hours due to lack of crew).

The cost keeps going up, and the trains seem fuller every month. The weekend trains are frequently packed, the carriages fewer, the impediments greater. Like so many British things, the outward look of success, greater use, greater revenue, becomes one of the alibis for each failure. “it’s not easy you know, we are very successful”.

I remember the abysmal service at a hotel breakfast once, after the 30 minute wait for toast, I politely asked if it would be coming at all. I received a terse, “as you can see, we are very busy”, as if it had come as a complete surprise that all these people had suddenly turned up, rudely booking merely weeks or months before, leaving the poor, shocked management beleaguered and furious that they had the annoying trouble of a successful weekend.

Why are we all still traveling by train anyway? Is the visit to the office a last totemic habit that should have been usurped by skype and emails and rapid international communication? It is not as if work ceases once out of the Ryman stinking carpet space. Stood on trains, tablets and phones in hand, the business type still stoops under the burden of mass communication, unable to escape into any alibi that can lead to relaxation until trapped in a tunnel due to land slippage or in the upper undergrowth of a mountain.

How very archaic “the customer always comes first” seems now.

Now, grab a bundle of travel recompense forms and start claiming back. Dividend damage, it’s the only language they understand.

there is a new series of live science and history gigs this Christmas with the likes of Stewart Lee, Mary Beard and many more. Tickets HERE

I am off to Totton, Bordon, Northampton, SOUTHEND, Dublin, Belfast, Exeter and Coventry (plus USA and Australia next year) Details http://www.robinince.com

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