“Tasteless, but a Gem” – Joe Orton, Graveyards and jellyfish

When I first went to Leicester, it seemed hunched and unhappy, whether it is king’s bones in a car park or football triumph, lately, it seems to have lost its stoop.

“Naught for your comfort, Aunt Edna. No rose-tinted memoirs of schooldays here, no benign providence to ensure a happy ending. Joe Orton’s Loot is a coffin comedy with a vengeance and not everyone’s idea of a joke”

It is 50 years since Joe Orton’s (probably) most often revived play and Leicester’s New Walk museum has a couple of glass cases containing Orton’s scrapbooks, scripts and a set of false teeth. These are the teeth played like castanets by Hal in the play. I don’t know if they are Orton’s mother’s teeth, I presume not. During the run of the play, Orton’s mother died and he handed her teeth to Kenneth Cranham (Hal) who was not necessarily pleased once the prop had been explained.
Orton wrote in his diary, “‘Here, I thought you’d like the originals.’ Cranham said, ‘What?’ ‘Teeth,’ I said. ‘Whose?’ he said. ‘My mum’s,’ I said. He looked very sick”.

When I was a teenager, Orton seemed at his most mythic. His diaries were published in 1986 and read flush-faced on trains from the home counties into London. John Lahr’s Prick Up Your Ears was made into a film, and Sunday newspapers colour supplements were not complete without a twice yearly feature on the anarchic life and brutal death by his lover’s hand, copiously illustrated with photos of those Moroccan jaunts, all tight trunked and accompanied by nasally beaming Kenneth Williams. As I walk through Leicester and past a deconsecrated public lavatory, I wonder why there is no plaque for Orton there. (I remember him talking of a cottaging break in a convenience on the way to his mother’s funeral).

His plays are still witty enough to avoid being museum pieces, and as the controlling powers continue their retrograde steps backwards into patriarchal bullying, their pertinence may be more pronounced again. Perhaps we are so distracted by our fripperies, and the opinion pieces that make progress appear to be oppression, that we have forgotten there are still things to rebel against. The recent popular rebellions have been illusory, predominantly led by a dominating mainstream pretending to be the outcast.
Also, Orton’s diaries contain a top tip for any male planning on being sketched naked. Orton reckoned that if you put off weeing for as long as possible, the artist had more impressive genitals to render.

Opposite the cased Evening Standard Best Play award, their headline that day, “Scandal! But loot has it”, is LS Lowry’s Industrial Landscape, River Scene.

How many of those figures walking in that landscape may have been dreaming of an escape from their industrial lives like the escape Orton managed from the factory future of Leicester? (which seems like an appropriate time to mention Arts Emergency, an organisation that aims to make sure that a future in art does not only become a possibility for those that can afford it)

The New Walk Museum also displays one of the loveliest paintings of someone knitting I have seen. Mary Isabella Grant by her father, Sir Francis Grant. Sadly, within four years of this being painted, she died.

The day before, I had been wandering around a cemetery, a habit I have had since before The Smiths. St Andrew’s Church had a very beautiful graveyard, the slate of the stones for the dead offset by the autumn colours and the leaf mulch that would soon be mixed up with corpse remnants. The 18th century engraver of the time carved interestingly ornate letters on the stones, and it is interesting to see the history of mortality and the number of those buried when far from old age. Then, I think about all of those who had no gravestone or whose simple splintered wood memorial would not survive a century. Most of the young and dead remembered here would have come from families who could have afforded a doctor. It is a good reminder, in times of anti-vax campaigning, that curious minds have helped usher children into adulthood, and hopefully old age.

Back in Leicester, I look at The Good Samaritan by William Hall. A doctor has come to the aid of a gypsy family with a poorly child. The caption at the side explains the difficulty of getting medical help at those times, and most especially for travellers. (and now you can add whatever footnote you’d like about the NHS)

On the other side of the museum, you can go further back and see the fossils and bones of Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs, including the Buckley Plesiosaur that “hasn’t got a scientific name yet as it has only recently been discovered”. Upstairs is a striking gallery of German Expressionism, including Ernst Neuschul’s Black Mother and Ludwig Meidner’s Apocalyptic Vision.

The gallery’s films on expressionism are projected on four walls and the floor, on second viewing you’ll see what you missed the first time around. One talks of the rise of post world war one decadence on the Weimar Republic and I wondered if now, in a 21st century of all night drinking and internet libraries of porn beyond the imagination of Caligula, if decadence, like Ortonesque rebellion, has become banal, a Friday habit.

To rid myself of these thoughts, I stare at Bryan Organ’s portrait of David Attenborough and then ogle the taxidermy, including a pasty and deflated jellyfish. This taxidermy might not quite add up to a Dead Zoo the size of Dublin’s Natural History Museum, but it is a menagerie at the very least.

It’s Halloween, so why not purchase or loan from the library the latest Dead Funny anthology, Dead Funny Encore, with ghostly and ghastly stories by Stewart Lee, Alan Moore, Josie Long, Isy Suttie, Alice Lowe, James Acaster, me and many more.

The latest Book Shambles stars Helen Czerski (we’ve also recently interviewed Alan Moore, Sarah Bakewell and Noel Fielding) and it also contains news of our Australian and New Zealand tour.

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What’s that eating my pancreas again? – is it time for me to depart the Walking Dead

There are no Walking Dead spoilers in this post.

I don’t get the same kick from disembowelling that I used to.
The lust of raw offal seems to fade with age.

I am of the Fangoria generation, though I was always more of a fan of the gothic, shadowy, inky House of Hammer magazine with its adaptations of Hammer horrors that could go where cinematic budgetary constraints couldn’t.

Fangoria delighted in revealing the techniques of putting machettes through heads and making eyes explode.
Friday the 13th and its imitators were the major contributors of peak gratuitous gore.
Psycho, Peeping Tom and Texas Chainsaw Massacre may all be mentioned when discussing the new age of horror, but they were still manipulating our mind more than spraying guts at us.
The filmmakers brought up on peak gore then paid homage with torture porn flicks like The Human Centipede and Hostel. They were gratuitous, but they didn’t disturb the mind once the eye squelching was done (eye torture was one of the main reasons the infamous and forbidden nasties made the DPP list).

I can’t stomach the gore anymore.
It is not forbidden anymore, it’s primetime mainstream in The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead is far superior to the torture porn, and far more depressing because of it.

I’ve still not done Breaking Bad, but have watched five and a half series of The Walking Dead.
It rarely makes me happy, but I keep going back for more.
Perhaps it replaced my previous malignant addiction of reading the weekly columns of Melanie Phillips.
I would watch five episodes in a row and then wonder why I felt melancholy.
But I like a good zombie romp, so I went back again and again.
Even the repetition didn’t get in the way.

“What’s that, Rick, you’ve had a great idea? Well you are our leader, let’s do it. Oh no, your idea has left most of us dead again. What’s that, Rick, not stay here in this safe place, just keep walking in the middle of nowhere? OK. Oh, you’ve had an idea again. Sure, why not, what could go wrong this time?”

But something happens with age. You’ve read too much of real life atrocities and maybe you have children, and that seems to have changed your fears of the world and reaction to it.
You watch a documentary about Rwandan genocide and you read some Primo Levi, and the escape of watching mindless hordes tear children apart somehow isn’t quite the escapist entertainment it used to be. I think my escapism may need a little more escape in it.
It’s not as bad as Eastenders, where we escape from real life screaming rows by watching fictional screaming rows, just with more smashed crockery and murder.
Is all this an escape or does it mean we can pretend that it is all pretend, it’s all just a story?

I watched The Road once, but The Walking Dead has become like watching The Road over and over again, why would you want to do that?

What I don’t understand is that I convince myself that I shouldn’t watch it, then time passes, and I see the first episode of the next series, and before you know it, I’m knee deep in the offal of my former favourite characters. I’ve read about the new series opener, and it seems like few people felt happy about what they saw.

Do I really need to keep practicing feeling miserable about tragedy and loss with fictional characters when there will be plenty of time to do that for the real?

Brilliantly made, compellingly told, well-acted and all the rest, but I wonder if I can give up this addiction to repeated violent tragedy, I’m not sure it is good for me anymore.

Though I am not giving up horror all together, as this new anthology of horror and ghost stories by Josie Long, Stewart Lee, James Acaster, Alan Moore, Natalie Haynes, me and many more shows. It just got a 9/10 review in Starburst and is available HERE.

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Idiot Good Samaritan Scammed Again… the rise of spite

In the all-new Bible for the 21st century, the good Samaritan is a naive and foolish leftie who falls for a scam.

The problem with scepticism is it becomes easier to exercise the further away the evidence is from your own favoured position.

I, Daniel Blake has become a very successful and award-winning film that also highlights major flaws in a government’s ideas of how to treat human beings. That government’s supporters must discredit it otherwise it will force them to undertake the tiring and unpleasant duty of rethinking their own position.

Compassion must be redefined as weakness. What was once seen as a strength has to be seem as an act of negligence, even stupidity.
It seems many spokespeople on the right wish to persuade us all that it is pull yourself up by the bootstraps, even if the straps wore away many years ago, or nothing. I find this odd as I am the product of a right wing family who also believe in a caring society.
Some of them do still exist. For whatever reasons the people I know are right wing, it does not seem to be led by an overwhelming desire to say, “To hell with everyone except me”. I presume this group will soon be no more.

To believe that humans should be fed and lived comfortably does not immediately mean you desire a perpetual benefits society where a jobless future is acceptable, even desired.
It may mean some reordering and rethinking though.

Cruelty is becoming a common sense position. If you don’t doubt stories of poverty or oppression based purely on your desire to doubt them, then you must be weak.
Find one overage refugee and they are all overage refugees.
Everyone is trying to cheat you, to take something away from you.
The desire for an improvement for those disenfranchised by war or genocide or poverty is some Lala land position.

What if you are not always in the top set? What if one day, through some misfortune or other, you lose it all? And then you turn to seek succour or kindness, but you can’t have any now, because you encouraged a world that means now they look at you and say, “you must have brought it on yourself, you pustulous wretch. I have read about people like you.”
And as they spit at you, you try to explain that what they read was written by you, and it’s all changed now, and you didn’t realise and… you’re bundled into the back of a van and you dream of smashing open a soup tin with a flint and drinking it cold.

And we find ourselves at Kurt Vonnegut yet again

“On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

And I think about Rawls’ Theory of Justice…

and someone tells me that Abraham Lincoln said that he’d rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all the time.

And I think I better donate to The Trussell Trust  even though maybe one of the people getting a bag of pasta may have spent their money on booze or be cruel, because maybe that person getting the tin of beans really has no other way having a full stomach.

Or maybe I’ll just stay in my house, twitching the curtains and feeding on spite, it’s all the rage. I am sure spite will soon be modelling on the cover of Vogue…

(as well as The Trussell Trust, you may want to look at The Equality Trust)

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The Yin that remains Windswept and Interesting

I’ve just been to a screening of Billy Connolly’s High Horse Tour Live.

As we now know, mutation, heredity and natural selection are unable to make the best, but they do lead to the least worst. In my mind, Billy Connolly is undoubtedly the least worst comedian in the history of stand up. In fact, his perfection as a stand up may almost persuade me to be a creationist.

Why is Billy Connolly considered the greatest stand up comedian by so many people?
In the Brexit language of Brexit is Brexit (how dull dictionaries will now become with the this new definition of definitions), funny is funny.
But that gets us nowhere.
What has made Billy Connolly so fabulously alluring for so long.
Alan Bennett once said of Morrissey’s face, he looks as if he has a story to tell.
This seems true of Connolly too, though unlike Morrissey, he has changed the stories.

I have rarely rung phone-ins, but when I was 15 or 16, Connolly was on a lunchtime LBC show.
I rang in and asked him what he thought of these alternative comedians that I so adored.
He explained that he had always though they were comrades in arms, comedic definitions change, but the actions were the same.

I am not sure when I first really knew of Billy Connolly, but being a comedy obsessive, I would gather together any pocket money I had and rightly squander it on anything comedic. I bought a cassette of Connolly’s Wreck on Tour at the Cheltenham Our Price, and then I played it over and over again, laughing in that way that seems no longer available to you once you have left childhood behind.
It was the sound he made when he retold the shock to the genitals when bathing in the North Sea.
It was the way he pronounced jojoba.

It is the projection of vitality that makes Billy Connolly so utterly alluring.
Like David Bowie, he is something potently vivacious to my generation and the generations either side. This is why hints at mortality, the illnesses that have crept on him, seem so preposterous.
He is Billy Connolly and he is a life force, for the sake of our sanity he must remain so. How ill weaker humans survive if these fountains of puckish spirit can be tainted too?

Those pondering about seeing Billy Connolly’s High Horse DVD may be worried they will be witnessing a shell of a man who has recently suffered prostate cancer and has Parkinson’s disease, but do not worry, this is not a carnival sideshow of staring at the remnants of a man who once was. The movement may be reduced, but the mesmerism is not.
There were no sympathy guffaws from the screening audience I saw this with, many of them comedians. This is a very funny show, the swearing may be sparser than peak swear days of Connolly, but it is still used with delight and twinkling venom when necessary.
The use of sound effects is as achingly delightful as the caterwaul of the North sea, in particular the beautiful rendition of the futtering suspense of a minimalist plane flying over Mozambique.
The stories of his own illnesses, brought up so we avoid spending our time “symptom spotting” are devoid of self-pity and bulging with wanking and wet patch jokes mixed with the absurd.
You will also be armed with the finest arguments for consuming white bread over brown.

I am not a habitual quoter of Bono, but after seeing Johnny Cash’s Hurt video, he commented that Cash was now doing for old age what Elvis did for youth in 1956. Connolly is doing this too, but without the melancholy, he gives the finger to the infirmities of age. The energy of his mind more than makes up for any loss of physical dexterity.

He is the Richard Feynman of comedy, a perpetual and unfettered curiosity and a desire to communicate it.

He is still impish with his fury. Some people say it’s like your funniest mate in the pub, but who the fuck has a mate this funny in the pub. His lack of affectation may delude some into thinking it is easy to make it look this easy.

There has been no departure of mischief.
Some of my favourite moments of Billy Connolly are with Kenny Everett. Their sketches as the two bearded ladies, in which Kenny, another overlord of mischief, adeptly leads Connolly to corpsing.
Or the repeated corpsing in the toilet attendant sketch where Barry Cryer can be heard from the side telling Billy to keep it together.
And few, when facing up to a sprinting and bra-less Liz Hurley at the BAFTAs could say so much without saying almost anything and somehow avoiding to be seedy or prurient.

Sometimes Billy Connolly DVDs are called masterclasses, but the trouble with calling something a class is that you may imagine you can learn to do as the teacher, I think Connolly is the most one-off of all the stand ups who have been called one-offs.

Now I’m going to listen to the welly song and that joke about the wire brush and Dettol.

74 years old and with Parkinson’s and he’s still better than the whole damn rest of us.

High Horse Tour Live is released on 7th November

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles series 4 has begun – all 35 episodes, including Mark Gatiss, Stewart Lee, Sara Pascoe and Noel Fielding are HERE.

Plus a new volume of Dead Funny is out with stories by Rufus Hound, James Acaster, Alice Lowe, Josie Long, Isy Suttie and many more

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I Wish My Left Feet Could Tap – some memories of Jimmy Perry

I can’t dance, unfortunately for Jimmy Perry, he never asked if I could.
Last night, I was on stage at the New Wimbledon theatre for the first time in 19 years.
Yesterday, I was standing next to a physicist who was presenting a cosmology lecture and offering occasional interruptions.
In 1997, I was standing next to Su Pollard and Ted Rogers for the purposes of a musical about the cut-throat nature of showbusiness.
This morning, I was back at the theatre again in foyer with June Whitfield and Fenella Fielding, making big small talk about the nature of time and the work of Norman Evans and waiting for a commemorative plaque for Jon Pertwee to be unveiled.
All three had a sense of music hall about them.

I met Jimmy Perry on an afternoon magazine show called 5’s Company, an early Channel 5 enterprise presented by Nick Knowles, Esther McVey and others.
Each afternoon, a circuit comedian would go on the live show in front of a nearly live audience and fail to entertain them. At that point in her career, Esther McVey was pondering on branching out from presenting into stand up comedy, but instead went on into politics. She became Minister of State for Employment and delivered a lot of bible black material.
On 5’s Company, she interviewed the crabby wit and art critic Brian Sewell who argued that money for a Princess Diana memorial would be better spent on hospitals. She challenged him, “but people want a Princess Diana Memorial”. Sewell replied, “but people are idiots”. This may have given her the idea to go into politics.

After my turn, Jimmy Perry asked if I would be interested in appearing in a musical he had written. It would star Ted, Su, Freddie “Parrotface” Davies and Peter Baldwin (who was quite brilliant as Derek Wilton in Coronation Street).

I went for an audition and two weeks later, I found myself in a south London rehearsal room.
Just as Brian Blessed is the most Brian Blessed-y person imaginable, it is fair to say you would be hard-pressed to find anyone more Su Pollard-y than Su Pollard. She has all the vim, verve, and anarchy in her that you can imagine.

The cast had been warned that I was “an alternative comedian” and I could see suspicion in their eyes. They expected me to walk in with an expletive laden diatribe about the Major administration before telling them they were all dinosaurs and saying something unsavoury about Binky Beaumont. Our comedy circuit was in the last days of being alternative, and a few of my friends had raised eyebrows and questioned why I would want to appear with the host of 3-2-1 and the cast of Hi-De-Hi. It seemed obvious to me, at the very least, this would be a fascinating look into another world of showbusiness, and it was written by the co-author of Dad’s Army. Nowadays, the former alternatives are all over  musical theatre, which reminds me, I must buy tickets for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The choreographer told us all to get up and get ready to run through the Funky Chicken number. I explained that I wasn’t in the dance numbers.
“Everyone is in the dance numbers!”
And then the horror struck. Jimmy, having presumed that everyone in showbusiness was an all-rounder, had not thought to check whether I had a left and a right foot that were up for the job.
By the end of the day, I had been dropped from five numbers.
By the time the show opened, I was merely a ghastly distraction hopefully in the shade beyond the footlights. ‘Allo ‘Allo’s Carmen Silvera, in full pomp as she was Queen Ratling that year and had recently danced with Sacha Distel, was appalled by me and would loudly tut each night as my front, turn, back together crumbled into a JG Ballard collision of limbs.

Freddie Parrot face Davies was a delight and taught me much in terms of traditional technique and on the last night he gave me a cassette of the songs of Leslie Sarony.
Jimmy was very generous and had a delightful air of brylcreamed showman whose destiny would have been music hall if only it hadn’t been in post-war death throes. Amongst the parts I was to play was a lewd and loud alternative comedian who opens the play. Jimmy clearly had doubts about this new punk of the boards, and had the character mainly doing farting noises and swearing. I suggested that this might not be quite in the character of the sort of stand up he wanted me to play, and he very generously allowed me to rewrite the whole piece.

The whole thing was a fascinating chaos. 22 hours before it opened, it turned out the play overran by an hour, and scenes were hastily chopped, so on the first night, no one quite new which of their scenes were still in. I have find memories of Su Pollard singing a moving song of melancholy romance, before hastily leaving stage left for a rapid costume change. Her microphone still on, “where’s me fucking wig!” boomed across the auditorium.

It was a fascinating 20 days (it nearly killed Ricky Gervais, who came to see it and laughed so much he failed to breath for 40 to 50 minutes, such was his delight and seeing me share the stage with Freddie Parrot face Davies). I was very fortunate to get a chance to see a little of that world, to talk to Jimmy about his work, and quiz Ted on the machinations of 3-2-1.

I also thank Jimmy Perry for the wonderful and predominantly forgotten BBC series Turns, in which he presented archive footage of music hall acts, often the only footage that existed of people I had read of musty books that told stories of Dan Leno, Little Titch and Eli Woods.

It seems odd, though I know it’s mere coincidence, that I should return to New Wimbledon Theatre and all those memories the day before I heard of Jimmy Perry’s death. This morning, before the news broke, I told Paul Abel and Jon Culshaw that there was a neatness in standing in the foyer, watching a plaque being unveiled, as that is exactly how the Jimmy Perry musical had begun 19 years ago.

I can’t complain that my career (it’s nearly been going long enough to call it that now) has variety.
Looking at the assembled elders of Doctor Who and the older acting eccentrics this morning, I thought how important it is that these plaques exist and these gatherings occur to keep names alive, hopefully a plaque for Jimmy Perry will be up very soon.

Book Shambles is back – interviews with Alan Moore, Noel Fielding and many more.

In another form of comedy variety, there is a new anthology of horror stories by comedians including Jason Manford, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Natalie Haynes, Rufus Hound and many more.


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The Contempt Count Rises…

I used to think I was my own worst critic, then I went online. It turns out I am merely the most methodical.

(below is an exercise in showing the mental processes of someone who doesn’t take criticism well. I just thought it may be of limited interest to show the absurd things that go through someone’s mind when they are at the sharpest point of a negative sentence. Please be aware that I am aware of my own ridiculousness.)

22nd October, 2016

I do not take criticism well, it is a trait I share with Stephen Fry. Sadly, those other more useful artistic traits have eluded me.

I have not fled from a production as yet, but I can understand how Stephen Fry’s urge for flight overtook his urge to fight.
In 1995, Stephen Fry was starring in Simon Gray’s Cell Mates with Rik Mayall. Having had some successful warm up dates out of London, Fry received a poor review from the Financial Times and fled the production. For a few days, there were fears he may have killed himself.
At the time, as a young not very successful comedian who was of no interest to critics, I wondered how on earth this could get to the incredibly successful and talented Fry.
Twenty one years on, still far from fame, but comfortable in my niche, my empathy with Fry is greatly increased. It is preposterous, maybe even pathetic, but the typed words of one person, whether professional or amateur can cut you down, even if the scathing criticism  is surrounded by positive reviews and kind comments. The one star shines far brighter than the five star.

Sometimes, I want to take a chainsaw to that person, at other times I imagine a sledgehammer would be more effective. My stomach knots and I want to stop everything. Give me a melon to punch to pulp, it may make things better.

The good criticisms become the warm voice of your deluded mind, the bad criticisms are the veritable voices of your self-doubt. Once seen and heard, you must stop everything at once.
It has all been a waste of time.
Everyone hates you.
You are authentically loathsome.
Make no more things.
Delete everything.
Buy a sledgehammer.

It is these moments where the flesh is ripped off and you see beneath you that everything you do creatively is a bid to prove yourself and it only takes the most minor of doubts for your spleen, guts and other bloodied offal to splash onto the hard ground beneath you.
You, charlatan, are exposed.

Silly, isn’t it. But if you weren’t so damn preposterous, then you would feel secure enough to shut up and live a quiet life.

It was at 1am last night that it happened.
A comment on the internet.
There are a lot of them.
Robin Williams was amongst the comedians who said, “opinions are like arseholes, everyone has them”. The internet has revealed that most of us are mainly made of arsehole. We are more puckered sphincter tissue than eyes, ears and brain.

It is 1am, I check on the Book Shambles podcast and see some new ratings on the iTunes page.
Oh, the review is angry.
It celebrates Josie but has furious disdain for me.
I am a misogynist ogre crushing Josie with my mansplaining.
I am some ancient patriarchal human on the cusp of being an arsehole in a fucking David Mamet play.
I am some prick who has read books and mentions the reading of books on this book podcast.
Ah fuck it, it will take longer to go to sleep now.
My stomach tightens into a ball of frustration.
I am offended and offensive.
My fear is that this is true.
As much as I hope this is not how our recorded relationship seems, in the ears of this person, I am this grisly horror of a ghastly being.
Fuck it. I’ve had enough. let someone else make the fucking thing that I have tried to pour so much into since it began under another guise ten years ago.
What is the point of putting all this effort into something just to find out you are a worse sort of prick than the prick you thought you were.
I type a tweet of upset and grizzliness.
I lie awake and verge on sleep thinking it is probably best to let the series run its course and never record any new ones. By 2am, I am about to email my conspirators and cancel our final recording session.

I wake up, which is good, as I wasn’t expecting to go to sleep.
I have now moved into a state of soft, grey fuggishness.
The family don’t fancy a trip into London, so there’s no Transport Museum for me after some numbing dental work.

My thoughts are muggy.

Fortunately, next to my dentist is a regular bookshop haunt. Hopefully I can browse myself out of discontentment.

I lie in the chair having my teeth tightened. A little dental acid has fallen on my upper lip and the corner coarsens.

I pop into the comic shop and see Luke. We talk of films.

The moment has past. I have not fled yet.

I am aware that there is another person in the world that holds me in contempt.

I write this.

I carry on.

You can find the contemptuous me at this Book Shambles podcast here 

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And Lucifer Bid them to look at the Walls – Birmingham

I love the chutzpah of any municipal gallery that confronts you with a statue of Lucifer as you walk in.
Birmingham is another of those under-praised midlands destinations with an oft-derided accent.
I have no idea why the Birmingham accent is so often ridiculed, I think it suggests a delightful innocent sarcasm, scepticism without guile, a knowingness that may be missed by the casual visitor keen to delude themselves into a position of superiority.
It seems fitting that curators chose Jacob Epstein’s disconcerting Lucifer, with its male body and female face, to lure us into their Pre-Raphaelite wonderland (with added penguin portraits).

I was particularly drawn to the feet, human but inhuman. Unlike Epstein’s Paul Robeson bust in York, there was no touching suggested, which might have been for the best, what if my palm sweat awoke the dark, sleeping spirit of the satanic, just in time for the Hallowe’en screenings of They Live.

Spending time in local art galleries, I have been impressed by just how prolific some British artists seem to be. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gallery without a few LS Lowry paintings or a Walter Sickert. I am also sure I have seen David Cox’s very similar capturing of the sands of Rhyl on at least four occasions. My hankering to go to Rhyl is no longer at a subconscious level, though I need to work out how to get to Rhyl in 1854, and though most privatised train providers are able to drag out time to a destination, they are sadly unable to do anything useful like shatter the laws of physics for the purposes of a Victorian holiday. Anyway, being a Philip Larkin fan, I should probably go to sunny Prestatyn, or to Barmouth for the giant crabs.

Looking at Alfred William Hunt’s Norwegian Midnight, I remember that for most of the gallery promenaders of the 19th century , this would be the nearest they would get to experiencing a Norwegian midnight. We have grown to blasé in our ability to travel the world, one more currency collapse and it may be better to get an art pass than a holiday abroad.

The Tate Britain exhibition of the epic biblical paintings of John Martin recreated the theatricality used to bring hell and damnation into the original exhibition, and looking at Samuel Coleman’s Delivery of Israel out of Egypt, I see it as the Charlton Heston movie of its time.

One room is dedicated to images of the personalities of Birmingham, including the Arthur Shorthouse’s portrait of the Official Ratcatcher of the City of Birmingham, Big Issue seller Vernon Burgess, and Emily Spark’s Ode to Christian Joy.


And then there was a container filled with copper coins and congealed milk. This was the work of Donald Rodney. At York Art Gallery there was a photograph of his father’s hand with a small, paper house resting on the palm, except it wasn’t made of paper. The house was made from a skin sample of his son, now looking dry and sharp. This is one of Donald Rodney’s art reactions to his own sickle cell anaemia, a genetically inherited disease. There, from his own skin, he had built his father’s house.

Inside this container of milk and coins, we can see the decline and corrosion of its contents. This is Land of Milk and Honey II. From other matter, he has constructed a representation of his declining health. Donald Rodney succumbed to sickle cell anaemia in 1998.

Barbara Hepworth’s garden is one of my favourite places to see the meeting of sculpture and spiders’ webs, in Birmingham Art Gallery you can see her H Graph works. They are unembellished by arachnids. Inspired by the surgeons who operated on her daughter to treat her bone disease, Hepworth became fascinated by “the extraordinary beauty of purpose and co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to saving a life”. It reminded me of the Ken Currie’s Three Oncologists, a painting that continues to obsess my partner in anger, Michael Legge. During the Edinburgh Fringe, he would go to the National Gallery almost every day just to look at that painting.

Waiting to see Arab Strap, he took a trip to see Ken Currie’s Jesus and is now similarly obsessed, he may now have to commute daily from Lewisham to Glasgow. This is the first time he has felt any need to make a pilgrimage for any Jesus.

(other works of excellence in Birmingham Gallery include
-Spencer Gore’s Wood in Richmond Park from his final series of works, painted shortly before he died from leukaemia.
-Edward Burne Jone’s Pygmalion series
-Germaine Richier’s emaciated, leaf patterned sculpture of depleted man)

Dead Funny Encore – a horror anthology with stories by Stewart Lee, Alice Lowe, Alan Moore and many more including me, is out Now.

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