And the atheists torched the tinsel and smote the myrrh

I will not attack your temple if you wish me a happy Christmas.

Some misty time ago, probably around the time of The God Delusion and the other clattering heels of the godless publishing boom, rumours abounded that atheists got very cross with Christmas. Each one was a Sherwood Alan Rickman, miserably weighed down by the tinsel and joy of festive celebration and decoration. (this was one reason I started Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People) Newspapers were heavy with outrage ink about the banning of Christmas, not the hardest story to refute as you walked around towns and cities brimming with Christmas.

But the veins of eyes popped every December with some new story of nativity plays crushed and children forced to do yuletide plays about lobsters instead (copyright Vanessa Feltz).

Most of that has drifted off to new outrages created from skewiff dreams and misheard conversations, the ash left in the air seems to be a belief that atheists will be insulted if you wish them “a happy Christmas”. In the last few days, I have had various people on the cusp of saying, “happy Christmas”, but then floundering to say, “well, errr not happy Christmas, you know, um, have a lovely break…or festive period…welll, you know, do enjoy the days off you have forced upon you in late december due to the story of that boy in the errr, oh dear, atheists probably don’t like anyone using the word manger…so…”.

I, and most of the godless beatific miserablists, do not give a jot. I care more about the consumer burden and the stupid burden of fear that people stagger under if their Christmas day doesn’t look as John Lewis as they’d hoped. “I knew I shouldn’t have wrapped that penguin so long before Christmas, trust me to forget to puncture the box with airholes. Oh penguin, we will mourn for you as we dry our eyes with paper party hats”. It doesn’t matter if the food is burnt and the cake is teetering and the pudding exploded due to the weight of brandy, enjoy that one time of the year where you can contemplate, and rest, and go for a walk and not work and talk.

And fuck the Boxing day sales – “I must get up at 5am, who knows what knitwear and lycra is savagely reduced in price by Next”. If you say, “happy Boxing Day sales”, then I will be at my scowliest. Should it approach that time of year where people say “Happy Female Genital Mutilation Day” or “Merry I have decided to strap a bomb to my child due to my interpretation of a text day”, then I may be a little scowlier (yes spellcheck, I accept “scowlier” is not a word to you, but I like it).

So, you don’t need to happy holiday me.

To plagiarise myself, “Happy Christmas, or as we atheists say, Happy Christmas”.

I a off to Salford, Belfast, Edinburgh, Berwick, Swindon, then USA and Australia in the new year –

For Christmas horror – here is a new anthology of gory and ghosty stories – Dead Funny 

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When your teenage icons are no more

The first icon death I can recall is Elvis. I was putting stickers of world war 2 bombers into my RAF Hendon commemorative brochure when the news filtered through. I knew him as a myth, as so many people are when you are eight years old, an image, a poster, a thing in an Easter holiday movie.

I was at school art club when I heard about John Lennon’s death. Alex Thomas told me. I don’t think it was the same day that I accidentally stabbed Robert Boughton in the hand with a craft knife. When the blood first poured out across his fingers, I thought it was a trick. Craft knives were banned after that. I usually created the same thing every art club, a gravestone and hand in clay. The stabbing of Robert Boughton was an awkward moment of my art being made punctured flesh. I only stabbed one more person at school, Adrian Chorley in the cheek, with an ink pen. I never had to see a psychologist. I knew John Lennon was important, but my cultural knowledge meant I was still a bystander in the multitudes outpouring of grief for a legend.

I am now older than either of these idols were when they died. I was at my sister’s house when the news came through that Kurt Cobain was dead. “How selfish”, she said, “he has a child and he was successful”. I’m 45, and I’m not stabbing anyone anymore, and it’s my icons who are dying now. 2014 has not been a good year for people who used to be blu tacked on my wall.

First to die was Bob Hoskins. I presume my obsession with him began when I saw a ruthlessly “edited for language and content” version of The Long Good Friday on Thames TV. What a charismatic turn as Harold Shand, the smallest man in the room, but rarely a doubt he was the most powerful. I can still recite the “The Mafia, I’ve shit ‘em” speech from the denouement of that film. How anxious I was to see Mona Lisa. Advertised in Time Out for the whole of the summer holidays, I obsessively photocopied the poster and palced the inky monochromes around my room. I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in San Francisco and loved it. I sat in an arthouse cinema in Birmingham and watched Birmingham in Felicia’s Journey. He conveyed strength and fragility, often men concealing weakness or showing kindness when employed for cruelty. He told whopping lies with such delight that they became true. Like other acting heroes of mine, Alastair Sim or Montgomery Clift, the eyes brimmed with humanity.

“Rik Mayall is dead”, said Michael Legge as I walked out of the toilet. We bellowed lines from Comic Strip films as we walked through Leeds. Michael had broken my glasses during a cushion fight that morning, it was the right day for two middle aged men who will never know better to have a slapstick accident. In October, I organised a Rik Mayall night at my local art deco cinema (everyone should have one). I sat with Michael Legge, Alexei Sayle and Richard Turner, bellowing with wet-eyed laughter as we watched Rik on the big screen asking, “why did the pervert cross the road? Because he had his knob stuck in the chicken.” How I wish there was more footage of Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall’s violent Beckett like plays, the 5 minutes of hammer attacks, nipple tweaks, and Johnny Craddock confused for a Volvo jokes from The Oxford Road Show will have to do for now. Rik Mayall’s sudden death held up a mirror to the blatant theft Michael and I have committed with much of our work. Genius steals, and idiots do too.

And I have drunkenly written of Robin Williams suicide already. In the nineties, his performances could sink too far into the maudlin for my taste, but when he perfected the balance, and he did many times in films like Dead Poet’s Society, Awakenings, Good Morning Vietnam and The Fisher King, oh especially The Fisher King, his acting was beautiful and beguiling.

The eyes have it.

I never knew any of them, only their work. Their work has changed now, death changes the performances and perception of it all. People say, “a bit of my childhood has died now”, but none of mine has, their work is there in cases and on memory sticks, and I’ll keep returning to it.

They are sadly dead, but their influence on me and my shouting and showing off and being an idiot will never go away, until I can make no more memories or movements obviously.

(oh, and I was in a minibus with band who were on their way to support The Wedding Present when I heard Vincent Price had died)

Brian Cox and I are on tour in the USA next year, see HERE

And I am off to Australia

plus tickets left for our UK Christmas gigs with The Cure, Alice Roberts and many experiments and surprises, and I’m off to Edinburgh, Swindon, Salford and beyond.

And finally, a new terrible Vitriola Podcast by Michael Legge and I 

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And on the ninth day, a god created Brian Blessed

Last Monday, we recorded The Infinite Monkey Cage Christmas Special. It was a first. When we first suggested a Christmas special, Brian immediately piped up, “let’s do The Bible”. Brian has an occasional habit of suggesting things like this, then, when he turns up on the day of the recording, he says, “why are we doing this stupid subject”. I will explain that he suggested it in a moment of bristling excitement and Chablis drinking, and he’ll wrinkle his nose, scrunch his face and say, “oh”.

At 11pm on Christmas night, a Radio 4 science show is doing a show on The Bible, that doesn’t have block capital, bold, font size 24 emails of complaint smeared all over it then.

To deal with the subject we built a crack team, like gathering a Magnificent Seven or Ocean’s Eleven. So I got on my donkey and started giddying it up around dusty streets of broadcasting house. We needed a vicar, and vocally and facially, Richard Coles is just like you imagine a vicar to be, to make it better, he actually is a vicar too.

For our Bible scholar, we called on atheist Hebrew expert Francesca Stavrakopoulou, but under Brian’s strict instructions that I introduced her. Brian is good on the ancient languages that make up many of the names in interstellar space, but not so good on contemporary Greek surnames.

What else do you need for a science special on The Bible? Of course, an astronaut, and as luck would have it, Chris Hadfield, our go to astronaut of choice was in the UK for a book tour. What is more vital for discussing the merits of the Book of Genesis than a spaceman who has traveled beyond our atmosphere and looked back on planet earth while singing David Bowie songs?

(Look, I’ll be honest with you, I am not sure whether an astronaut is vital for scripture scholarship, but when Chris Hadfield is in town and you are making a radio show that night, you bloody well get him on).

So, what was out Bible special missing, it is obvious if you think about it…BRIAN BLESSED.

The day started well with a long argument. Our producer had gone to get us a Bible from the nearby church (all religious texts are banned from the BBC due to the corporation’s equalities regulations…haha not really Daily Mail and Express, that was a lie…no no, Jan Moir, come back, it wasn’t true, you stopped reading too early. Don’t type that. Oh dear).
It was one of those very modern Bibles that removes the poetry to create a murky blandness and extricate the poetry from the King James version. Brian read and reread the opening lines of the Book of Genesis. He was apoplectic and used language unavailable to Aled Jones when he’s presenting Songs of Praise.

Then we had an argument about what you can ask a vicar. I wanted to ask Richard what of the Bible he needs to be true to believe what he does. Brian thought I was setting an atheist bear trap, but I just wanted to discuss Biblical literalism and how most priests I know, and I do know priests, do not require the entirety of the Bible to be accurate. Brian and the producer ganged up on me, and I went into a huff, the sort of huff doubting Thomas probably went into when everyone had a go at him for putting his fingers in the nail holes.

We recorded to the right of a plaque commemorating Bing Crosby’s final recording session as we were at Maida Vale, also home to many wonderful Peel Sessions, including Hefner, may I recommend that album to you heartily. As we were at a new studio, I had to wait for Brian at the toilets so he didn’t get lost after his wee. It was two left turns from the gents to the studio and that is two turns for Brian to get wrong and end up in a prop cupboard where they keep the skeletons of Blue Peter’s less-loved, dead pets.

What happens when an astronaut, a bible scholar, a vicar and Brian Blesses talk of Gospels and Commandments? You’ll find out at 11pm on Christmas Day.

Brian and I are on tour in the USA next year, see HERE

And I am off to Australia

plus tickets left for our UK Christmas gigs with The Cure, Alice Roberts and many experiments and surprises, and I’m off to Edinburgh, Swindon, Salford and beyond.

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They Came to Crush the Dandy – Some Questions Provoked By QuestionTime

Question Time seemed to get the fun, holiday season cacophony that Farage and Brand were meant to bring to the table.

Furious audience hoopla, while the honoured guests attempted to appear statesmanlike.
It was more a night of applause wars.Everyone in the audience had a chance to applaud their own echoed opinion, and everyone got the chance to shake their head at words they disagreed with. Farage sat there with a new expression that said, “I’ll be deputy Prime Minister soon. I wonder if there’s a hook to hang my pewter tankard in Nick Clegg’s kitchen?” He has been taken seriously by the media for long enough that now even he can comfortably take himself seriously on telly. Russell looked more serious too, even nervous, not grasping for power, despite having the monstrous ego of a performer, this behemoth was dwarfed by the Godzilla egos of those who imagined their feet resting on ministerial shagpile. Later, this lack of dictator desire would be thrown at him, and even he would not quite know how to handle this peculiarity.

Brand brought bankers’ bonuses up and some people had that look of, “can’t we move on, it was all a long time ago”, at the same time as we are told austerity must continue forever. Apparently, it is both over, and it will never end.

Columns are now being written about the moment Brand was “silenced” by a man saying, “I don’t like people preaching that I am in any part responsible for anything”.
I have watched this over a few times, (Could this be my “back and to the left” Jim Garrison moment) and I can only presume there was a clumsy edit.

“I don’t like people preaching that I am in any part responsible for anything”

What this man seems to be saying then is, “how dare anyone say that anything may be my fault, that any action of mine may have ramifications for anyone”. So we live in a world where nothing we do has any implications for anyone? At the very least, I know my consumer choices have ramifications beyond me, my voting choices have ramifications beyond me, the way I influence my child has ramifications for others, and on and on.
How has this dumb statement heralded any column inches, a nonsense statement elevated because it made Russell Brand uncomfortable.

As for the question about why doesn’t Russell stand for parliament, there may be some merit in that, or at least, find some people he can support. The revolution may be some way off yet. I hope it is, I work for radio 4, I am bound to end up perilously below a blade while old women furiously knit. While the revolution of representation and higher conscious is in the distance, we do at least have to try and lure some people into the political arena who represent what we feel about the world, and it can’t only be UKIP, despite the media’s blanket insistence that they are the only ones. I may look to the NHA Party or Green Party instead while imagining a rebellion in the ranks of labour that reflect the values I read in post war books and pamphlets.

Or, I might just do some more adverts for fruity chews and purchase a little granite outcrop, grow a beard and starve as my carrot crop fails.

Though I disagree with quite a few things Russell Brand says, this incessant disdain for him from politicians and journalists creates the illusion that everyone else is speaking such wonderful, pragmatic sense. Much of what he said on Question Time was perfectly sensible and, though he may not be our Neo, his popularity is a reminder that not everyone dissatisfied with the three main parties has been hooked by the delicious beer and fag worm bait of the new right.

I am off to USA with Professor Brian Cox for a tour

I am off to Australia to tour on my own

and I am still taking myself around the occasional UK date too, from Edinburgh via Bishops Stortford to Salford (and plenty of Christmas shows in London too)

FOOTNOTE: Why do the media have so much love for Farage and such a desire to crush the fop “upstart”? (answers on torn cardboard to the usual bin please)

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I Know it’s Over – when all the shouting is done…for now

My brain is a wrung out dish cloth and a sodden blanket of tiredness hangs on my shoulders. The pockets of adrenaline secreted in the fractured cracks of my body have run dry. I have finished touring, at least until 14th January. Though I have much to do, radio shows to present, live shows to produce and MC, there is a guilt that this touring comedian is not touring. How lazy to wake up in your own house, without the confusion about what town you’re in, and the suspicion that the station you walk to will have the heart sinking sign, “Bus Replacement Service to Penzance”.

This will be the longest tour break for some time. 2012’s tour ran directly into 2013’s, which ran directly into 2014’s, with any possible cracks in the schedule filled with Utter Shambles shows with Josie Long and Grace Petrie. The second month of Winter is usually potent with paranoia that I won’t find two hours of new ideas. My room is carpeted with etched postcards, felt-tipped non-sequiturs, the scene of a badly organised serial killer from a B movie. It was in preview gigs in Uckfield and Eastbourne that I started to see what the next tour show would be, and it was not what I had presumed. The fear of the audience’s glare makes the mind work in a way that it won’t when just staring at blank paper alone in an office. I was lucky to start the tour at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, I could not have wished for a more generous audience. They offered the energy I needed to feed on, oh Succubus stand up creature me, and I leapt around physically and mentally, the entertainment perhaps less in the words than in the spectacle of the possessed. Then, to Nottingham and Sheffield. I sat on the stage, watching the audience come in and eating a banana, like a street busker attempting Krapp’s Last Tape. The young grandson of Alan Sillitoeasked me to convey a message to Brian Cox about something he believed the Professor had got wrong. A man approached me to say he had been at his mother’s funeral that day, and decided that this should be how he spent the evening. It was daunting to be in such a situation, to know that someone has placed such trust in you. I hope I didn’t fail him. Somewhere over the months, most of the show was shed and replaced by another. I can barely remember the second half, and I know most of the first half went too. Whether the caterpillar of the early show became a butterfly, or just came out of the cocoon another caterpillar, I don’t know.

In July, I tried out a bunch of new ideas that were going to make my Edinburgh show. Some made it, many have been forgotten. I can’t read my notes. If they were funny, they may come into my head again. They form the munitions somewhere in my subconscious which may suddenly fly forth on a given night when the spur is there. Though I have erased most of it now, there are the last wisps of the smoke of the memory that this was quite hard tour mentally, may be it should be when it is about the brain. I think the show itself was very often the best show I have taken on tour, but there was a glumness when I wasn’t immersed in showing off on stage. Nights where, until I was in front of the audience, I really didn’t think I had a show off in me. I took Grace Petrie with me for some of the Autumn part of the tour in the hope that she would distract me from offstage, dressing room mirror staring cliches. It was the right time for me to make the Radio 4 documentary about comedians and mental health.

Every night is a party, with all the worries of whether people will turn up and whether they will enjoy the entertainment you have laid on. Fortunately, most of the time, people turned up. My apologies for the perpetual Facebook and Twitter, “I am playing here.TICKETS STILL AVAILABLE” harassment. There were a few venues where the turn out was disappointing to the point of bleak, but other towns and cities where the people kept coming. Salford and Manchester, my fondness for you remains intact. I have played to more people up there than in London, so I was corrct when I fetishised The Smiths and then the Madchester scene in my youth.

Next year, I have a smattering of UK dates as I make my new show, Reality Tunnel (though still billed as Blooming Buzzing Confusion on some theatre sites), and I go to USA with The Professor, and to Australia on my own. Then, from July onwards, with the occasional music festival exception, I attempt a solo show hibernation. Few people trust I will keep to it, let us see what tenacity I possess.

Thank you to everyone who came to all the different shows I did on 2014, and to Michael Legge who smashed my glasses in Leeds, and made me fall off the wagon in Edinburgh, both experiences were useful. And thanks to Josie Long and Grace Petrie too for the Shambles. And to Peter Bloomfield for the brain scan. I have just made a new folder “Notes for 2015 shows”, here we go. for all UK tour details etc

and Dead Funny, with stories by Stewart Lee and Sara Pascoe and Rufus Hound and on and on is HERE

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I Love the Smell of Paper in the morning, it smells of victory…or history or science fiction or… I Love Books

“People who don’t read get what they deserve.” John Lydon

“It’s bloody ridiculous. How can a school get away with not having a library.” Russell Brand

They may not seem to get on, but Lydon and Brand agree, it is good to read.

“I think I have worked out why the big bang happened”, said the six year old.

I am delighted when I look across a children’s party and see that my son, having had his fill of cake and bouncy castle, is sat under a chair, reading a book. He has devoured most of the Horrible Histories and talks of beheadings, disembowelings and obese monarchs leaking from their cracking coffins with some regularity.

The only book he has brought back from school that I have blanched at when asked to read it at bedtime was the Children’s Bible. This was not for “militant atheist” reasons, it was merely that the adultery, dead babies and cruel slaughter went beyond the Dahl gauge of the grotesque. My own The Children’s Bible In Colour of childhood seemed to be less abrupt and more eloquent. Fortunately, I still have a copy, and I think I will swap it with the Bibles for Children’s edition. Don’t worry, it’s still brutal, the images of Absalom hanging by his hair from a tree, and Abimelech with a millstone landing on his head are almost as vivid in my memory as anything from Struwelpeter. I may get a copy of My First Holy Qur’an for Little Children, if not for my son, it will save me a lot of reading time.
When he is a little older, he can enjoy Robert Crumb’s interpretation of the Book of Genesis.

Currently, he has more questions on many worlds interpretation than Jesus or the prophets, but it’s all swings and roundabouts and scooter injuries at this age. The seeds of scepticism and critical thinking haven’t sprouted into a plant whose vines will strangle all myths and apocryphal tales at this age. Today, in the journey to be critical with sources, we decided that the facts on the web concerning giraffes and swallowing time, from mouth to stomach, were a bit all over the place, and we better a write another, more trustworthy giraffe fact onto the homework page. Only minor erasing was required.

When he asks scientific questions, or offers up theories, I enjoy the mental taxation of seeing what I am capable of answering to his satisfaction, and discovering what I don’t understand well enough to describe succinctly.

I liked his description of the big bang happening because “there was just too much stuff packed together so it had to burst open”.

How exciting it is, to sit and muse on all the other potential “hims” their might be in all the other possible worlds – dragon winged or elephant headed, changing numbers of digits, ears of all shapes…

Sitting on the train to Enfield Town, we thought of what would happen if his friends went off traveling at the speed of light, and of the robots on Mars.

This is the brilliance of books, and the sadness when I hear of houses with none in and parents who no longer read. If children don’t see reading about the house, then it is in danger of becoming eccentric behaviour, the hobby of unusual.

The internet is packed with things, even if its giraffe information is a bit of a mess, but it is books more than anything else which seem to really engage and massage the mind. There is something about the engagement that happens between mind and paper when sitting under a chair with cake in your hair, and socks loose from jumping…

See the children engrossed in the corner of a public library before you declare them archaic and worthy of extinction. How many worlds for many interpretations are shelved and ready to be opened..?

I am off to USA with Professor Brian Cox for a tour

I am off to Australia to tour on my own

and I am still taking myself around the occasional UK date too, from Edinburgh via Bishops Stortford to Salford (and plenty of Christmas shows in London too)

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“Oh let me get my hands on your mammary glands, but pray god, never let it be known they have a function”, gasped Morrissey, as he rode pillion on on his Vespa

So there was this story in the news,   and I had ten seconds to spare…

Apparently, the west end cafe that asked a breastfeeding woman to disguise her child as a napkin does allow discreet breastfeeding. Just how flamboyant can it be?
I have heard rumours that spinning the child around like a catherine wheel causes rapid expression, though can lead to vomiting too.
Whenever one of these “woman told diners are puce and uncomfortable due to fear of millisecond teat exposure”, it just seems to cause a creasing of the face and a vaguely confused, “is this still really an issue”.

I rarely hear an argument against that doesn’t have me reaching for my Big Book of Sigmund Freud.

I do think there is a line to be drawn somewhere. I think if two mothers are frantically tugging at their mammary glands, attempting to have a food fight across the able with their own secretions, then the maitre d’ should intervene. As yet, I haven’t seen that, though I imagine it may make a neat scene should John Waters ever write another Pink Flamingos sequel.

Amongst the arguments I’ve hear against breastfeeding when not dressed in a surplice or beekeepers hood and garb is that it is not nice to look at when you are eating.

Stop looking then.

I find being stared at puts me off eating, so why keep looking at someone who is breastfeeding. If you are someone who keeps staring at other diners, maybe you are the issue.

I suppose there is some possibility of extraneous slurp noises disturbing your consomme, but public places are frequently echo chambers of slurps, snorts, sniffs and, curse them all, whistling. There are so many ways that humans can annoy me in public that breastfeeding is still in a chart position similar to a third d:ream single on my list of “why I try to avoid going out unless entirely necessary”. (Actually, I have vastly underestimated D:ream’s popularity, their third single, U R the Best Thing, charted at no.19).

What’s more, people are really going to have to up their table manners and eating dexterity before declaring babies have the worst table manners. I once saw a drunk man trying to eat a scotch egg. He was confused by the geometry of this ball of meat and hen dropping, unable to work out where he should begin, eventually, he thrust it at his mouth and mainly missed.

Someone once told me that they worried that other men may find it sexual. If we start asking for everything that may possibly be considered sexual to be performed behind a napkin, curtain, or closed door, we soon have derelict streets. Also, some people may find things done behind closed doors sexual, so then we have to put a curtain around the closed door, and then when someone finds that arousing…oh it goes on.

(reminding me of the lovely Jenny Eclair joke – “Dorothy Parker said ‘men don’t make passes at women who wear glasses’, I don’t know, most men I know would fuck a tree”)

I have not as yet met a man who has said with a wink and a curled lip (let’s add a waxed moustache too), “you know my favourite thing? You know when a woman has one of her breasts out, but it’s obscured by a baby’s skull, phwoar”.
It seems to me you have to go out of the way to find this offensive or disturbing, or still have issues with a nursemaid from an Oedipal nightmare of your youth. Perhaps for some, it is the fear that something so often used as ornament in mass culture is suddenly given purpose before your very eyes.

For all those that suggest the argument “it’s natural, just get used to it”, indubitably leads to “well pooing is natural, but you won’t catch me doing that in the John Lewis restaurant. What next, masturbating in Fortnum and Mason’s truffle corridor?”, well maybe they should just get on with it. Let them be the Rosa Parks of public pooing and supermarket onanism if they really feel that will improve their lives. Crap or get off Claridges dessert trolley.

I continue to tour, from Exeter to Edinburgh to Sydney to San Francisco – all details here (also a series of London gigs with Brian Cox, Mary Beard, Stewart Lee, Josie Long and the like)

The brand new episode of the Vitriola music podcast with Michael Legge and I is here and on itunes

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