Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why People Do Stand-up Comedy

Why People Do Stand-up Comedy

This week I returned to the comedy stage for the first time since I closed my club, Joe's Comedy Madhouse, in November 2005. It was a weird and beautiful experience.

Tom Hughes and Pete the Meat, who run The Reckless Moment in Leamington Spa, kindly allowed me to do 10 minutes of comical poetry, which came as a shock to the audience but went not too badly. I did about nine poems, including Probably Not, Women, Cook and Drive, Loving You, Barthday and Chav. I also did one inspired by a new word I had learnt at the club the previous week, Fluffer (don't ask), and one dedicated to Pete's meat mania (Meat Elegy).

I don't think the audience quite knew what to make of it. Some of the poems were funnier than others, and I was, as always, very nervous, my leg shaking within my tartan trousers. But they were a kindly audience and I think it added some variety to the evening.

Afterwards, Tom said, 'That was beautiful, Oliver!' which was too kind. The evening itself was a beautiful occasion. The comedians seemed to be unburdening themselves of their angst in a most poetic fashion. A big, grizzly Welshman made his woes seem like song, and a huge, ugly Cornishman told profoundly moving stories about his screwed-up, violent past.

It occurred to me that no one up on that stage was doing it purely out of a desire to entertain an audience. We all had sad-limned issues drifting to the surface; a need to be up there in the spotlight to have people love - or at the very least listen - to us. That's why people do stand-up comedy. I have met very few stand-ups who were not in some way screwed up.

This thought regularly occurred to me during the five years I did stand-up comedy on the London circuit and the eight-and-a-half years I ran Joe's Comedy Madhouse, also in London. But most of the time I was drunk so I didn't dwell on it. Performing stone cold sober is a far more frightening and fascinating experience. But like the rest of the line-up, I still wanted to be there. I wanted the attention!

The good thing about the Reckless Moment is that it is so supportive. Tom and Pete take an almost irenic approach to the club and its performers. They want everything to be beautiful and so it is. Tom, I think, is really a physical comedian waiting to break out while Pete is quick of wit and musical (although not as musical as Prince who also seems to turn up late).

A beautiful thing happened last night. The man-mountain Cornish bloke was edging into some material comparing white people with black people when he spotted a couple of black guys in the audience. One of them seemed to be inching forwards towards the stage, his friend trying to hold him back. The guy got near enough to speak quietly and be heard and, to a hushed silence, spontaneously performed a brilliant piece of rap poetry about how it was cool for the comedian to talk about black people. The applause afterwards was deafening.

So sublime a moment, I wish I could have bottled it.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Leamington Snow / Lucky Bunny

Leamington Snow
Image of snow fallLeamington Garret. This morning I crawled out of bed to see the park beneath my garret bedroom carpeted with snow. It looked wonderful but I felt terrible.

This year, for some reason, I am not coping with January at all well. It cannot be purely because I am on the wagon. I have done that a number of times before and not suffered as badly. These past three weeks I have felt terrible - physically and mentally. I have missed Lewes like mad whilst in Leamington Spa; found the Day-Job stressful; and really struggled to get my head round anything, including poetry.

This week has been typical. On Monday I rolled up at the Reckless Moment comedy club in Leamington to perform my comedic poems, only to find I had come on the wrong date (a week early). I have also been sleeping terribly and feel drained at work during the day.

But I mustn't grumble. I came up from Lewes on Sunday to perform at Sean Kelly's excellent poetry night, PureAndGoodAndRight at the Fox in Leamington. What a fine evening it was!

I performed Probably Not which went down well and Loving You - likewise. Our Neighbours went all right, and my new poem Cook and Drive was well received. I Fought The Law and Women also went well.

The gig was packed with a very pleasant crowd. Jane Holland was very good indeed and I bought her volume The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman from her for a fiver. Emma Purshouse was also very good, taking a thematic approach to comedic poetry. And there was a superb poet from Oxford called Laura King who has kindly contributed a brilliant poem to Oliver's Poetry called From London to Oxford. She was really eloquent in her diction and performance.

There were 17 poets in total, a remarkably varied and talented bunch.
That was the highlight of the week. That and the tremendous warmth in the Leamington Garret living room. Last year I could never have dreamed that this place be so snug in the depths of winter.

It is 11.11pm now. I am dog tired but know I shan't sleep.

The other thing I did this week was have a go at generating a MySpace site. In fact I had started it months ago in a spare half-hour and have not looked at it since. In a sad moment, it occurred to me that having no friends on MySpace was incredibly pathetic, so I should devote some time to it.

Last night I went into a friends frenzy and this morning I had more than 20 so-called 'friends'. I deleted the ones I have never met and am left with 18, mainly comedian acquaintances, as my MySpace gang.

It seems to me that this is not at all shameful for MySpace. For instance, the comedian and musician Earl Okin has hundreds of scantily clad young women as friends, most of whom I would wager he has never met.

And Paul Foot, who I liked very much when I met him regularly (despite his disastrous performances at my former club Joe's Comedy Madhouse) has almost 1,800 so-called connoisseurs on his fab MySpace site. God knows where they all come from. He is a shy man.

If I have a spare couple of hours next week I am going to try to put a version of the Oliver's Poetry home page up on my MySpace site, and make some bally sense of this MySpace malarkey.

Lucky Bunny (Flashback to Thursday, 30 March 2006)

Leamington Garret. Great day at the Day-Job!

We came to the end of a three-day conference for volunteers which went really well. I chaired a couple of sessions, the second of which was for the volunteer webmasters. It went brilliantly. I'd hired a website expert to give them some training. He was followed by the Daily Mirror's webmaster who was most entertaining (especially with his shirt hanging out).

I must say I learnt a great deal which will help me in the design of the Oliver's Poetry website which I currently working on. And the question and answer session was great fun - I felt like a stand-up comedian again with all the banter flying around.

Afterwards I had a can of beer in the marquee with the Mirror chap and colleagues from the day-job. Then I went home in the Last Word in Luxury - my trusty steed. It was dusk.

Image of two bunnies As I was driving along the fast road to Leamington at around 40mph, a little bunny ran out from a hedgerow and under the nearside front wheel. I was shocked but it happened so quickly I hardly had time to touch the brake pedal and just managed to swerve slightly. I feared I had killed the bunny. I hate that. Roadkill is everywhere round here.

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the bunny running away completely unharmed. Thankfully, the wheels had missed him and the car had travelled over without touching a hair on his little body.

Lucky bunny!

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cotesbach Enclosures Riot: 400th Anniversary / April Flurries

Cotesbach Enclosures Riot: 400th Anniversary

My friends in Cotesbach Sophy and Tom Newton and a group of the other villagers are organising a remarkable celebration to mark the 400th Anniversary of the Cotesbach Enclosures Riot on 7 July 2007.

The Cotesbach Estate, Cotesbach, Leicestershire, UK On the Cotesbach 400 website, they tell the story of the event. Four hundred years ago, five thousand people from three English counties descended on Cotesbach, which even today has a population of only 150, in a non-violent protest agin the land enclosures that was threatening their livelihoods. With what tools they could lay hands on, they tore down the enclosures in the village in what became known as the Cotesbach Enclosures Riot. The Cotesbach villagers gave the visitors sustenance from 'carts laden with victual'.

Cotesbach Enclosures Riot 400th Anniversary Count Me In logo On 7 July, Sophy and the rest of the village of Cotesbach, in Leicestershire, UK, are hoping 5,000 people will again come - the greatest gathering there in four centuries for a day of history, music entertainment and drinking.

To find out how to join them, check out the Cotesbach Quattrocentenary.

It has been a strange week. I drove back to the Leamington Garret on Saturday and went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of Richard III. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although it did have a bewildering variety of modern and ancient weaponry and costumes and a Richard III who appeared to be playing most of his lines for laughs in a style a la Rik Mayall! Still, a good night out all the same.

The Pi House, Cotesbach, Leicestershire, UK
In the morning I went to Cotesbach. It was most amusing to watch a video of Tom, Sophy and daughters' recent appearance on Sky News satellite television, as part of the channel's ecological week. It also seemed surreal to see our gathering place the Sickle and Stick on national television, with hundreds of candles burning inside and our game of choice, Staghorn, in the background. Publicity for the sport like Tom and I used to dream and joke about!

In the evening I went to see Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, round the corner from the Garret in the Apollo in Leamington. I was not prepared for the level of violence in it. I could not help wonder what would induce Mel Gibson to make a film like that, good though it is (apart from the money). He is at least 20 percent mad.

I have also spent a lot of time in the flat. It is pleasant and ordered here now. Somehow it looks completely different from how it used to be. We have a good dining table and have moved round all the furniture. My old music centre has been pressed into action, somehow linked up to my new flatmate's computer to play CDs with tremendous sound quality. Seventies working with Noughties gear.

I have also fixed the turntable, which was playing slowly, using a rubber band, courtesy of the Royal Mail. It was fantastic listening to my pristine condition 1971 LP of Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones on it. What a great album! (Not to mention my 1968 Aretha: Lady Soul, and collection of other LPs I have shipped up here).

This week is the first we have been online. BT has finally installed broadband. This blog is the first to be published live from the Leamington Garret. Having the internet has added a whole new dimension to the flat. It feels the opening of a window to the world.

On the other hand, I am finding it really tough not drinking. I am also on a diet which pains me greatly. The third of horror is applying for jobs - something I always do at this time of year despite an entrenched hatred of job applications. This enmity probably stems from my low hit rate, which I have resolved to improve.

It all tends to make me rather tetchy and overly critical. I guess January is a month where we promise ourselves we going to mend our lives and then get upset at the slow or non-existent rate of change.

So, what's ahead? Well, I want to write a piece (and possibly a poem) about The Girl With A One-Track Mind, having read and mulled over her book. I also intend to pen something about a very different volume, George Orwell's Homage To Catalonia.

More pressingly, I think I am booked to do some poems at the Reckless Moment comedy club in Leamington next Monday. I dropped in this week to get another feel for it. It seemed strange being in a comedy club and not drinking. It was another good night, though, and Pete the Meat came up to me and thanked me for blogging about the club.

On the poetry front, I haven't done a lot although I have tons of ideas. There are just not enough hours in the day.

So, I will hand you over to this week's Flashback, which is the last one of the 50 or so I prepared before launching Oliver's Poetry.

After today, I shall be busking it into the past.

April Flurries (Flashback to Monday, 10 April 2006)

Leamington Garret. Just returned from the swimming pool where, embarrassingly, I split my trunks while in the jacuzzi!

Realising this and getting out, I hoped none of the women around would notice. Fortunately they were too busy chatting, as I shuffled past the fun pool and the back of the water flume on my pathetic way to the gentlemen's changing rooms.

It is - by my calculation - seven weeks and four days (or 53 days, if you must) until the launch of my website, Oliver's Poetry and its blog Oliver's Poetry Garret.

I have started to write immediately, partly to get into the swing of it and, partly, so the blog can go forward and backward in time simultaneously. I tend to dwell in the past and the future rather than the present time. Which, according to the Royal Leamington Spa Town Hall Clock which I am currently observing through the tiny window of my lofty garret, is 9.30pm.

A blues compilation CD is playing in the living room down the narrow stairs. I put it on shortly after opening a can of Primus Premium Lager, which I got free with three others tonight from the aptly named Costcutter.

If you have been following this as-yet-unwritten Flashback (or Backblog), you probably know a lot about me. So there is no point reiterating what I have already told you in the future!

My main concern here and now is how I am going to make Oliver's Poetry a success (if that is possible). I have already laid the foundations of the site, based on a comedy website that a physics student I once met on a train designed and emailed to me - out of the kindness of his heart.

My web skills are very basic but I am fairly pleased with my handiwork so far. The problem is I would like a free (or inexpensive) statistics package and a decent blog format. I am hopeless at technology. I have not even managed to get on to the internet in this little attic flat.

When I have finished this, I shall put the information onto a floppy disk (yes, I still use floppy disks!), place it in my ancient bag (which closely resembles the UK Chancellor's Budget Case and was about to thrown out years ago by a cellist friend of mine called Ruth Boswell before being given to me) and take it to my other garret in Lewes where it will be transferred onto an old Apple Mac which is on the world wide web. Phew!

When I arose today at 5.22am in Lewes, there was snow on the ground. I might write this week's poem about April Flurries. It was stunningly beautiful and seems a good theme. That white duvet on the Downs was sublime. The virgin rug between the battered steel rails at Lewes Station, too.

The real point of starting Oliver's Poetry Home is to make me write a poem a week. I managed it last year - my first year of writing poetry - but so far in 2006 I have had the block. Worrying!

I must start the April Fluries poem.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Lewes Arms Boycott / Cuban Salsa

The Lewes Arms Boycott

The current boycott of the Lewes Arms is one of the strangest disputes I have ever encountered.

The Lewes Arms is perhaps the most pleasant, homely and, until recently, popular public house in Lewes, East Sussex, UK.

Often one would go in and queue in a three or four thick scrum at the bar to get served because the demand was so great. You did it because it such an affable place and the beer was excellent.

I generally drank the local beer, Harveys Best Bitter, brewed a few hundred yards away, and therein lies the crux of this strange tale.

This highly profitable public house is owned by the brewery Greene King, of Suffolk, which decided to drop Harveys Best from the Lewes Arm and replace it with its own, phony Lewes brew.

Of course it is the prerogative of any business to decide which products to offer its market. On that it lives or dies.

Greene King clearly felt that it could increase its profit margin by offering its own brew in its own pub without competition from another brewery's beers. Fair enough.

What the management of Greene King did not count on, however, was the enormous loyalty of the Lewes Arms customers to their genuine local brew.

Perhaps the customers also felt the brewery was trying to pull the wool over their eyes - treating them like idiots - by offering a faux Lewes ale - complete with 'borrowed' local coat of arms.

No matter. It became quickly apparent weeks ago that the high-spending crowd at the Lewes Arms was not going to live with the dropping of Harveys Best.

Faced with a barrage of protest and the intervention of the parochial local MP Norman Baker, Greene King bloody-mindedly went ahead and dropped it anyway.

It is at this juncture in my view that a simple business mistake turned into a Marx Brothers comedy.

The Lewes Arms customers en masse have gone on strike, boycotting their local and staging regular pickets outside. Even the pub's drama society is performing its annual pantomime elsewhere.

The pub has lost not a small band of die-hard boozers but hundreds of regulars from all walks of life with wonga bulging in their pockets. Greene King has managed to alienate an entire town. A remarkable gaffe by anyone's standards.

The Lewes Arms – to my knowledge the only pub in the town with a late licence – has been transformed from being one of the most packed hostelries in the county to the licensed premises equivalent of the Marie Celeste, with only the ghostly bar staff (pictured at the top of this blog) idling away the hours on the wrong side of the bar, pretending to be customers!

If I were the boss of Greene King, I would have a few harsh words to say to the executives responsible for this shaming debacle. They have turned this pub - and their company - into a business laughing stock in my opinion.

What would the management guru Tom Peters reckon to it? I daresay the concept of finding out what your customers really want and then – needlessly - taking it away from them would be repugnant to him.

What would legendary General Electric Chairman and Chief Executive Jack Welch make of it? I'd say there would soon be some empty saddles in the OK Corral at Greene King HQ if he was mopping up.

Drinkers boycotting the Lewes Arms, Lewes The sight of local barristers and solicitors boycotting the Lewes Arms beggars belief, as does a famous photographer from The Guardian newspaper coming down from London to picture the locals drinking their own booze outside the beleagued pub.

Does Greene King have any concept of how much reputational damage this is doing them?

What would happen if the boycott spread across the county or even became national and all their pubs and beers were blacklisted by ale drinkers? It's be all over for them.

Greene King's share price is currently riding high on the wave of a buoyant stock market, but financial analysts are sensitive folk. If I was still working in the City, I guess I would have grave doubts about a company that ignores the views of its customers and does not worry about losing money.

To me it would indicate a fundamental flaw in management thinking and poor or no strategic planning. No Plan B. No flexibility. I would wonder what else was going wrong under the Greene King bonnet unbeknown to investors.

And I would certainly flog my shares in Greene King while the going was good. When confidence collapses in a company's senior management, the share price can fall through the floor.

The company strikes me as being overly focused on the rest of the brewing industry - concentrating on acquisitions of other companies - rather than being customer-focused and striving to better serve, retain and, of course, profit from existing, happy customers.

From a pragmatic, business perspective, I believe Greene King now has two options to resolve this issue:

1. Bring back Harveys beer to the Lewes Arms, re-train or let go the executives responsible for getting the company into this PR disaster, and apologise unreservedly to the customers, or

2. Sell the Lewes Arms.

I do not know which they will take. Judging by their performance thusfar, I suspect the latter.

Meanwhile, Lewes's many other excellent pubs are reaping the benefits and the Lewes Arms regular are writing an interesting blog about their campaign and putting up Boycott Greene King posters all over the place. I say good luck to them.

If Greene King's senior management don't start listening to their customers, the sun will set on them.

 Chewing Gum Marriage (Flashback to Tuesday, 11 April 2006).

7.23pm. Leamington Garret. according to the Town Hall Clock Tower, which I have been photographing out of the garret window.

Glass of red wine in hand and Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits on the stereo, I am chilling out after my day at work.

In my lunch break, I tried to sort myself out with a blog on a website called blogger.com. Simpler than I imagined. I was fiddling around and a pop-up appeared and said a blog had been prepared for me! I looked at my newly born blog - it was rubbish!

I had wanted to use a format designer called Caz who a good blog, Olivia's London Dispatches , employs. But I could not work out how to import it. So I picked one I was not as keen on, although it is greenish and still looks good. Green is my favourite colour and also my eye colour.

The point of the blog is to be an integral part of my website, Oliver's Poetry. This is my second entry, although probably not the second you have read. I am not sure I am doing a great job on the poetry front. Later I am going to salsa class and finish that poem.
11.07pm, although I can hardly see the Town Hall Clock now in the darkness over the roof tops of Royal Leamington Spa.

The salsa lesson was typically perplexing. The Cuban guy who takes it likes to speak in a slow deep voice to win our attention. He is like a cross between Fidel Castro and a Dr Who alien. I rather like the guy, although I rarely completely entirely follow the moves. (Although, to be fair, that is always true in my case).

I am wondering how this concept of one-day-forward, one-day-back blogging will fit into the strait jacket format of Blogger.com website. I may find myself appending the Backblogs to the end of the blogs. And when I run out of flashbacks (backblogs), should I start inventing them?

An old track by 10cc has come on to the late-night boogie box and, suddenly, I find myself thinking of people who are long gone, blown away by destiny, some of them dead.

I must finish that poem.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Changes / Cut Throat


David Bowie Changes album cover It is hard to describe the abject misery of returning to Leamington after my fortnight's Christmas break. I did not want to go back at all.

The New Year was blissful. Tongue and Groove put on another magnificent show in Lewes. We saw 2007 in with champagne while the band belted out a fine rendition of David Bowie's Changes, with one of their sons, a boy of 10 or 11, on the lead vocals. He was brilliant!

'Changes' seemed a particularly apposite choice for the New Year. My life needs to change; this split existence between Lewes and Leamington is tough. It is too exhausting and expensive, and the things that have happened to me in Leamington town over the past eight months have stripped it any allure it might once have had for me.

Tongue and Groove in action

I am not drinking alcohol for the first 39 days of the year; this gives me time to think. I also want to get my weight back down to twelve and a half stone. 
When I think of all the things I need to sort out, it feels like there's a mountain to climb. And even without booze, there are temptations: the book I am currently reading, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, and the poem I am revising, January Blue.

I must persevere.

Cut Throat (Flashback to Wednesday, 12 April 2006)

7.39pm, according to the Leamington Clock Tower with its funny little turret. Emotionally I have been all over the place today. My head has been playing nasty tricks on me.

Someone has had his throat cut in the park (Pump Room Gardens) which our living room overlooks. I first heard about it on the radio while purchasing cheap lager and cleaning fluid at Costcutter (I only drink the lager).

The police had cordoned off the area where the attack happened. After they left, I inspected the scene of the crime. There was plenty of evidence of drug-taking - abandoned, dirty syringes - as well as as broken biscuits and crisps. I could not find any traces of blood. I guess forensics had already removed them. With a throat being cut, there must have been blood.

I wonder what happened. I wonder if anyone will ever be charged; if it will even make the papers.

At lunchtime, I had another go at Blogger.com. I published a note explaining that the blog was in development and would be launched at the beginning of June 2006, at the same time as the new poetry website Oliver's Poetry. I also had a go at writing my profile.

I did not put up my age as that's a secret (44), but I did reveal my birthday (22 December) which got turned into Capricorn on the blog. Actually, December 22 is on the cusp between Capricorn and Sagittarius (and astrology is a load of bull).

The interests section was easy: poetry and photography. I could have added comedy, having run stand-up comedy clubs in London for more than eight years, and drinking (a disastrous pastime for as many years as I can remember), and salsa dancing. But it is best to keep it simple. At least at first.

On music, I did not do well at all. I left out many of my favourite groups, such as The Beatles. Films, I managed to think of a few. Books, I also failed. Along with Music I shall have to redo it later.

When I get some pictures up on the blog, I don't think it will look too bad, although it would be nice to have extra features such Poem of the Week.

My dear sister-in-law, Catriona Clutterbuck, is a poet and a charming lady. At Christmas she gave me a 2006 Calendar containing one of her poems. She is Miss October (or rather her poem is). I am currently looking at the April folio which bears a poem called Blackbird by Kusi Okamura. Rather good, albeit morbid.

I am restive. Also cold. I have my one window open to try to air this sloping room (the floor is concave meaning this computer is on a gradient, as is the king size bed, although it slopes the other way!)

Too tired and freezing to carry on writing. I might go down to the music open mic night at our local hostelry, the Jug and Jester, but, first, I must round off that poem.

11.25pm. The Jam at the Jester was once again an excellent evening. Very much the same cast as last week - some brilliant, some mediocre, one or two who conceivably took too much LSD in the 1970s.

I drank while thoroughly enjoying the vibe: people from teens to dotage making great music together. The superb, grey goatee-bearded guitarist from last week was back. A cut above the rest. There was a dodgy folky moment in the middle; some groovy boogey woogey, and a surprisingly thrilling finale of Motorhead and AC/DC covers. (I hated those headbanging bands when I was DJ-ing in the 1980s but can now see the value of at least a couple of their tunes).

Otherwise, I am striving to warm up this cold little garret for the nocturnal battle ahead. I nearly always get duffed up in my dreams and wake up in a bad state.

And that poem? Almost complete.

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