Category Archives: miscellaneous

…It Had Bells On

This week marks the end of an era in this particular part of South East London. For Friday brings the last ever Pull The Other One, the best Nunhead-based comedy night you’ve probably never been to.

Yeah yeah yeah…Comedy nights come and go, don’t they? Well, Pull The Other One was unlike anything you’ve ever witnesssed or experienced. You think a comedy night is three blokes + compere + mildly amusing satirical observations? PTOO bore the same relation to that sort of affair as The Beatles to a skiffle band. ‘Anarchic cabaret’ is the glib phrase they used themselves in their promotional material. It’s close, but it doesn’t fully do justice to the sheer breadth this cavalcade of silliness spanned over the years.

PTOO specialised in character comedy. You’d rarely come across out and out gag merchants. Instead its bread and butter was the bizarre, the ridiculous and the plain daft. I have seen women having onstage nervous breakdowns, eating lettuces, men with the testicles out, men pretending to be frogs, Phil Kay singing his entire set. You name it, it’s happened. Much of its appeal lay in its whole ‘anything could occur in the next two and a half hours’ feel.

Its originators, the ringmasters of this circus of the surreal were Martin and Vivienne Soan. When I first started coming around 2011, Vivienne would be the compere, while Martin loitered at the back and attempted to cue the music for each act. (Indeed Martin’s inability to provide the right music at the right time for the right act has long been a much-loved feature in itself.)

Part of its success was also the intimate setting – upstairs at the Nun’s Head, a cramped room, capacity about 60 with a tiny orange-lit stage, decorated with the kitsch porcelain animals Martin wheels in especially for every PTOO. It was like you were in someone’s front room. And that perhaps was its key – you felt part of a family. There (literally) wasn’t distance between the crowd and the performers. You willed and hoped them to be good, and more often than not they are. If not, so what? They’d be something equally daft and outrageous on after the break.  PTOO has always been mercifully free of the ‘I’ve paid my £10 so you better make me laugh’ mentality that affects other comedy clubs.

If you’ve been you’ll know. If you haven’t, ask for the stories. I hope the Soans reconsider and this is merely a Sinatra-esque ‘retirement’ (I find it hard to believe Martin will be able to give it up completely) but for the moment we have to take them at their word. Farewell Pull The Other One. You made me laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh, until I cried, until it was painful and for that I thank and salute you Martin and Vivienne.

The last Pull The Other One is on Friday 29th June at the Old Nun’s Head, Nunhead and is, unsurprisingly, SOLD OUT. 


A Midsummer’s Nightmare

Normally I don’t have any problems getting to sleep, but as you know this has not been a normal week. Last Saturday morning I woke up at 2am from a dream to remember that a real life nightmare has come true. And then I couldn’t get back to sleep worrying about the future of our country, what has happened and what will happen.

I thought about how I would never forget this day and the manner in which I had heard the news. I had stumbled downstairs at 7.30, butterflies in my stomach, to be greeted by my partner who was weeping. I span round, barely unable to take it in. I made my stepson’s breakfast, then mine, before I sat down to watch the TV, spooning cornflakes into my mouth in disbelief. “Well, now we’re just a little island on our own,” the 9 year old boy said, grasping the basic gist of this enormous news. We saw Cameron’s speech before I got him off to school.

I was in shock and then following on from that I felt (in no particular order) anger, frustration, sadness, hurt and deep shame at being English. So much so that I emailed a couple of my friends who are EU nationals that work over here, apologising for what ‘we’ have done. They haven’t replied yet.

Can’t get back to sleep. I look at the clock. 3am. I started thinking about my own personal journey, how playing football in Germany and Belgium and Poland and meeting people from different countries banished my own inner Little Englander. I think ‘God, how I’d love to pay for these Leavers to go over abroad and experience the same things I did and realise that ‘the other’ is nothing to be scared of.’ Meeting and socialising with people from different countries and cultures is joy that enriches all of us.

And then my thoughts turn darker. What will happen when the 52% discover in time they have been massively conned, that their lives aren’t getting better, that there are still foreign accents on the streets? It will be the poor and the powerless who will suffer most. I know we’re into ‘false consciousness’ territory now but let us not forget the millions of ordinary people who voted for the Nazis in the 1920s.

I don’t use the analogy with the Weimar Republic lightly. When we say the word ‘fascism’ we immediately think of jackboots and concentration camps. But the road to the gas chamber is marked out by increments. During this campaign the genteel acceptable faces of hate have been the likes of Farage and Gove, the barrage of anti-migrant headlines in the Mail, Sun and Express; their words of spite advance battalions presaging the daubings on Polish centres and calls to ‘send them back’. I shudder inwardly. This is England 2016. What is happening to us?  

3.40am. Cameron drifts into my restless semi-conscious musings. How must he be feeling? Just as Blair will go to the grave with Iraq on his heart Cameron will know that this will be his epitaph – the man who broke the UK, the man who mixed up short term tactics for long term strategy, gambled his country’s future and lost. The slick PR man’s mask slipped as he gave his resignation speech and his voice wobbled. He knows he’s messed up, about as huge as it is possible to mess something up. Right now, he must be the most hated man in Europe.

I turn again to my clock. 4:10am. I long to talk to an older relative, someone with perspective who has been through something more frightening than this: The Second World War, 1940, the last time fascism was lapping at our shores. But my mother died in 2003, my uncle in 2013. And then I realised I am the older generation now.

And whatever people were saying it wasn’t a division between young and old, or even between rich and poor. I’m in my mid 40s, I’m certainly not rich and I voted remain. The main difference I feel (with exceptions, of course) was between the educated and uneducated, between those who cherish the great possibilities that flow when people of different cultures and nationalities come together and those who want to close down possibility, want to build walls and hide behind them

Eventually some time around 5.30 I drift back to sleep. I wake up on the Saturday morning not wanting to be English any more, not wanting to share a flag with the misinformed, the easily-led, the small-minded, the xenophobes, bigots and fools who thought they were somehow ‘taking back control’ (what a facile slogan). Is this lashing out? Please don’t judge me harshly. I’m grieving. Grieving for my country, for my dreams of a fairer, kinder, more open-hearted society, for the brotherhood of nations, of all mankind. Yeah, I know – all that hippy stuff. Maybe these feelings will fade but right now I’m devastated.

One week later, I still am. I may be for some time. 

Britain At The Edge: A Plea From The Heart

The tension has now become almost unbearable.

I can’t quite believe that this is all coming to pass. Historians will look back at this moment and scratch their heads. What possessed England to press the self destruct button in this way? For that is what Brexit amounts to. Quite apart from the fact that in simple economic terms it is clearly barmy. There is also the fact that the Brexiteers are almost certainly signing the death warrant for their own country – the UK. For if Scotland votes Remain a second independence referendum up north is a nailed-on certainty. Scotland will go, no doubt about it. Wales too, in time. And then what will be left? Little England. But then I suppose that is what these Little Englanders want. Perfect isolation, safely tucked away from scary foreign accents.

I don’t want that for my country. I want an outward facing, inclusive nation that is at ease with itself, that is unafraid of the world, of the future, that doesn’t want to hide underneath the bedclothes and pretend that it’s still 1952.

I don’t want the country to be controlled by a bunch of ‘even-more right wing than the present lot’  toffs who are quite cynically using ordinary people’s anxieties against them*, who have blatantly and deliberately stirred up a mean-spirited xenophobia that has already led to an MP being murdered. Ultimately these people want Britain to be an enlarged version of Guernsey, a tax haven where the rich lord it over the poor, without any of the restrictions the EU provides on working hours, workers’ rights and environmental legislation.

So I look at the polls and I shudder at what lies in store on the other side of June 23. I think about the little ways it will affect life on this island. I think of the way my stepson’s opportunities will be curtailed – he may want to study another language and work in another EU country. I also think of the social group that myself and my partner have been a part of for a year or two.

This is a friendly bunch of people based around Brockley. We meet up occasionally for pub quizzes, meals and various social events. One of the wonderful things about it is its cosmopolitan nature. There is a Spanish woman, an Aussie, a Canadian and her Rumanian partner, an Irish guy and his Japanese girlfriend. Its international make up means that as well as a lot of fun, it’s a richer experience for all of us. What makes me sad is that in 20 years time a group like ours might be a relic of the past, as England pulls up the drawbridge and withdraws.

But what do you do? When an individual is so fixated on self destruction, be it through drugs, alcohol or internalised violence it is very hard to dissuade them. Like a toddler, sometimes they just have to smash up their toys to realise that it is not the best course of action. Perhaps England needs to get this tantrum out of its system before it can finally grow up, realise that it’s not special and that it isn’t 1952 any more.

And that no man, or country, is ever truly an island. I implore anyone reading this to vote against xenophobia, against racism, and for hope and for Remain.

* During the last week or so this song – from an equally dark moment in British history, summer 1981 – has been replaying in my head over and over. “And as I was standing by the edge/ I could see the faces of those who led pissing themselves laughing.”

Shall We Talk About The Weather?

It really has gone beyond a joke now.

The summer of 2012 (‘Britain’s greatest summer ever’, lest us forget)…where do you start? Aside from a brief 10 day respite at the end of May it has not stopped raining since the first week of April. That’s three and a half months of rain. And there’s no sign of it ending yet. Up north and in the west there have been floods. It’s not been much better down here. There is just one question on everyone’s lips: WHEN WILL IT END?

We are all familiar now with the notion that it is the jet stream curling in the southerly direction that has caused this, but what’s more worrying is that this is now becoming an annual event. For the record it is now almost a decade since Britain enjoyed a warmer than average summer, in 2003. It is six years since we had what could be described as an average summer that was warm in places but also cloudy and wet in parts. Since then we’ve had 2007, a complete washout, the worst in over 40 years. 2008 was scarcely an improvement. The following three years all followed a similar pattern in that any warm dry weather was frontloaded to the start of the summer – April and part of May. July and August – traditionally the warmest part of the year – have been wet and mild for over six years now. You have to be over 15 now to remember what was like to enjoy a hot summer in Britain. An entire generation is growing up not knowing what it’s like to bask in temperatures over 80 degrees and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with not having to remember to bring a bloody umbrella out day after day after day.

So what’s happening?  Some climatologists have posited the theory that this alteration in the jet stream is linked to the melting of the polar ice caps. If that is correct (and being climatologists they are hedging their bets, saying that many more years data are needed before they can come to a definite conclusion) then there’s a certan karmic justice in all this, isn’t it? Capitalism will destroy our planet and thus the human race. And as Britain was the first industrialised country, the first to fully adopt free market capitalism on a mass scale then there’s a certain poetic justice that we are reaping the whirlwind that is the result of our burning of fossil fuels for over 250 years. Actually ‘whirwind’ is probably the wrong word in this context. Can you reap a weekly deluge of rain followed by interminent showers?

Until then shall we stop using the word ‘summer’ to describe June to September in this country? The ‘British monsoon season’ is surely a more accurate description of the climate we enjoy between those months now.