Now is the time for procrastination.
I want to write a book.
I have to write a book.
There is a deadline.
This morning, I dreamt that Amy Schumer was doing a show at a theatre in coastal Kent. It was not well-attended. I explained to her promoter that it was odd for her to only be doing one show in the UK and for him to have chosen a coastal Kent town. My dream mind made up an ornate Victorian town that does not exist beyond my head. The rest is the sound of my alarm and my son. Folkestone is trending on Twitter this morning, this is not enough synchronicity to present a paper to the Jungian delegation.
Procrastination part 1 – tweet about the Book Shambles podcast. Check how many people are listening. Check whether you need to have an argument on social media.
The book was inspired by a Radio 4 documentary I made with Alex Mansfield. After the death of Robin Williams, I read some of the articles that footled with the idea of “the miserable clown, who makes everyone else laugh while they shed tears for the pointlessness of existence”. As alluring as this myth is for comedians, it ennobles us, I wanted to challenge it. I interviewed Jo Brand, Simon Amstell, Barry Cryer, Josie Long and scrutinised the BBC archives for enlightening interviews with Frankie Howerd and Tony Hancock. Jo Brand, who had a career in mental health before taking to the stage, summed up my thoughts most succinctly. She didn’t see most comedians as mentally ill, but felt that most she knew were damaged people. Finding the subject impossible to condense into an hour, I decided to write a book. I was taking a break from stand up as my head had gone grey on the inside as well as the outside, so what better way was there to take a break from doing stand up than to spend the time off writing about stand up.
Procrastination part 2 – Hmmm, what music should I write to. It can’t have vocals. Should it be Ennio Morricone soundtracks? Free Jazz is too disconcerting. Most jazz I have will jar my sentence construction. That’s all my weird dance cello albums out too. Philip Ridley talked about Shostakovich on a recent Book Shambles. Yes, it will be Shostakovick, it may civilise my writing.
After writing 25000 words about comedians and the possibility of melancholy, I went off the idea. Or rather, I found a better idea. Reading Sarah Bakewell’s superb At The Existential Café on the way to hear her speak under a Marylebone skylight, I realised the book needed to be bigger.
Comedians are exaggerated human beings. They can be noisy summaries and pointers to what it is to be human. They are not some special other species, they are a magnification.
Rather than write a book about comedians, I’d write a shorter book on the whole of humanity, that should be a challenge and a good alibi for spending days reading peculiar and esoteric books about the human condition.
Procrastination part 3 – what colour Post It notes go best with the wall I am going to use to keep track of it all, and should I use string to connect all the ideas up with?
I had a title I liked, Shouting at Strangers for Money, but now the book has changed, that has been vetoed. The working title is now You’re a Joke…and So Am I or should it be I’m a Joke…and So Are You?
I had written 35,000 words, though increasingly I realised that it was a 35,000 word introduction, or perhaps 7 introductions of 5000 words each, a bit like my stand up shows. I was writing it on tour with Brian Cox, and being reasonably thorough. Then, one morning in Bristol, I woke up and Donald Trump was President Elect and I slumped into an expansive period of “what’s the bloody point of creating anything”. Despite its intricate equations and expansive images of the Cosmos, physics doesn’t always lift you out of an existential slump. The indifference of the universe to our ultimate annihilation can be deafening.
Now I realise that inaction through existential gloom is just what the hard right are relying on to embolden their agenda of spite and venality, so it is time to type again. I aim for 80,000 words by 4th February.
Procrastination number 4 – write a blog post on writing a book.
Typed words so far – 0
Coffees – 2
Social media and email checks – 4
Tweeting links to Stevie Smith poems – 3
Sarah Bakewell is one of many recent guests on Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles. Alice Roberts is our latest guest, and Philip Ridley will be available in the next few weeks.
I will be hosting a series of events at the Slapstick Festival in Bristol, including a celebration of Rik Mayall, a screening of Beckett’s Film with Buster Keaton, and Alexei Sayle’s top comedy moments.
The despair of the Trump effect is perfectly plausible but even more reason to keep on at it. Good luck with the 80,000 words by 4th Feb – just keep writing! Procrastination is a specialty subject of mine – totally get it. I doubt that book in me (I know that’s a very cliche thing to say), will ever be written.
‘Shouting at Strangers for Money’ should definitely become something. ‘I’m a Joke…and So Are You?’ is more fluid.
It’s the rationale and eloquence of a comedian that allows us to understand and laugh at our own lethargy and nonchalance.
The Human Zoo.