(this is a sort of post. My teacher friend Charlie asked me to make a speech at his school’s GCSE graduation do. I wrote some sentences and some notes. I then went off on a tangent. Some of the speech contained some of these things)
I am not an original thinker.
Everything I say to you has been learned from reading books, watching stuff and meeting people who were sometimes remarkable and sometimes awful.
(I then showed my brain scan)
This is my brain. It is like yours, though I apparently have quite a big occipital lobe and maybe you do too. Having a brain scan is useful. It helps arguments on social media.
When someone challenged me and angrily asked, “do you even have brain?”
I was able to reply, “yes, would you like me to send you a jpeg of it”.
This is where I do all my thinking.
I am fortunate. I live a life which I find exciting and I meet people I find enthralling.
I was not the most popular boy at school. I went to school with Charlie, surprisingly, we were not always the alpha males you see before you (Charlie is as alpha as me. Specs, lolloping walk, that sort of thing)
Outsider kids, that was us.
But fortunately, resilient enough to raise our head out of the toilet bowl without having swallowed too much water.
Marginalised but we survived in some ways intact.
Others realised they must change themselves to run with the mob, and not for the better. They shaved off the interesting edges of their personality so they could crush others, or at least stand in the background laughing as the odd ones were marked out and dragged around.
I am relieved that both of us did, because the bruises and the embarrassments of our teenage years has allowed us to enjoy our adult lives.
In a larger environment, fools such as us can gravitate to the other oddities who made up the bow-legged, last at games, head in a book when not in a toilet, 10% in the corner.
It helps handle the fear of attempting the unusual.
To do silly things
And exhilarating things
And not always worry what everyone else thinks to the point of doing nothing, too fearful of shame to take risks.
(though I am still far from fearless, you won’t catch me bungee jumping, which is one of the many reasons I won’t do it)
When I was 16, I wanted to be a writer and a comedian. It petrified me. I was terrible at my first gig. I got better, then worse, then better. Sometimes, when I think I can’t be rubbish again because I must have learnt enough by now, I am rubbish again.
My first big gig, at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, I felt sick for a week. One day, I walked up a hill and looked down on the whole of Edinburgh and thought, “most of the people getting on with their lives will have no idea about what happens to me tonight, my success or my failure”. That helped.
One of my favourite writers is Samuel Beckett. One of his most celebrated quotations is “Fail. Fail again. Fail better”.
The foolish ideas that I pursued have sometimes led me nowhere or worse, into a critical mauling, but they are also the reason that in the last month I’ve been to Canada to gig with an astronaut, been in the Lovell telescope with Brian Cox, drunk tequila with some of the most famous rock musicians in the world, and eaten pizza with my favourite comic book writer of all time. Don’t start making anything by thinking, “I wonder what they would like me to make”.
Think – “I want to make this. I will put everything I can into it. Hopefully, people will like it too”
Many of the most successful artists I have seen, I have seen create something that failed.
What is success?
I don’t think it being a millionaire. I think it is doing what you want to do and not feeling cold and hungry. Am I successful?
I don’t have to look at prices in the supermarket anymore and I can turn down work I don’t like the sound of.
Also, more often than not, I like the audience I play too. I hear of comics with success I could only nightmare of, and they look out at their thousands a night, and they are relieved to be driven away from them at high speed.
Poor Kurt Cobain got an audience he never wanted. He looked out at people moshing in the crowd and knew they were the sort of people who punched him in the head at school.
I remember doing a gig with Stewart Lee. It didn’t go very well. Afterwards he said, “but would you want to hang out with any of those people? Were they the kind of people you’d want to be friends with.” I didn’t think they were.
You don’t have to like your audience, but I think it can help.
Let’s start. (don’t worry, I have cut most of it from here. I must have said a lot of words last night)
Something I’d like to get out of the way first of all is that you are rare. We rare. This is a rare planet in a very big universe.
There is life here. Looking at our solar system, we have not found compelling evidence that there is or has been life elsewhere. Our solar system is one of billions in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The Milky Way is one of billions of galaxies. These are big numbers and long distances. There may well be many civilisations spread across our galaxy, and billions more beyond, but we have not found a way of contacting them yet. For the time being, this planet is the only illustration of life in our universe. It is impressive in its variety. Do not be nonchalant about the variety of flowers, weeds, birds, big cats, small cats, mice and jellyfish.
Life in the universe seems to be rare, and life such as you and I is rare on this planet. You are currently the rarest of things, life that can ask questions and is aware of itself. We can build telescopes and submarines, explore the depths and investigate the sky. We can ask each other questions, we can express love for each other through thought, word and gesture. We are complicated and problems arise from that.
Our communication is complex, so it easy to get confused or be deliberately misled.
Work out why you believe what you believe. If it is based on one person or a few people’s opinion, wonder why you trust them above others.
don’t be scared of asking questions – I have met great minds, become bamboozled, and wondered, do I risk asking a question?
Will they look at me with pain and pity as they see how little I know.
But they know how long it takes to understand general relativity or quantum chromodynamics or Finnegan’s Wake, and they know you haven’t spent four years or five decades studying it
and they are not embarrassed that you know less about their life’s work than you do.
and they are glad you are interested.
… anyone who answers “what a stupid question!” may not be worth taking to in the first place.
challenge yourself musically, cinematically, with what you read… the initially impenetrable can be the most rewarding.
(I have cut the rest of my notes from here, I talked about much more, and then when they began to cough a little, I sat down again, somewhere around this line)
and from one of my favourite songs by my favourite band, remember that it takes guts to be gentle and kind.
The Shambles podcast with Josie Long is back. The first two, with Stewart Lee and Sara Pascoe, can be found HERE
My angry happy stupid music podcast with Michael Legge is HERE . We are doing live shows on 20th and 21st December too with lots of musical guests
and there are still a few tickets left for the first night of the shows I am doing with Brian Cox and a horde of scientific, musical and comedic guests at Hammersmith HERE