And we might even consider the tang-ki 童乩 self-mortifying spirit mediums among the Hokkien in southeast China (Ken Dean) and Taiwan (David Jordan). For links to posts on Chinese mediums, see here.
* * *
Anyway, all that was meant just as a little preliminary aside—sorry, got carried away (What am I like?! LOL). Throwing pursuers off the scent, what I’m trying to get round to is Stewart Lee’s choice of Ethiopian jazz. But to cite the Plain People of Ireland again, here’s me bus, so I guess that’ll have to wait for another time [Later: here’s the post]… Dang.
I have the greatest admiration for people who learn to manage their speech impediment to speak in public. Not among them is Bumbling Boris (for his full title, see Stewart Lee—since “Boris” and “BoJo” seem too generous in their familiarity, Lee’s solution “Turds” seems suitable; “Spaffer” also has a certain ring to it).
Along with the tousled hair and shambling walk, his disjointed speech—seeking to convey a spontaneous happy-go-lucky image, making it up as he goes along—seems a public-school affectation. Mystifyingly, in some quarters this is apparently considered attractive, like Hugh Grant’s “Posh Twat” persona, or Jacob Tree-Frog eternally trapped in the ridiculous fancy-dress outfit that he once wore for a laugh at a school party.
Or is his stumbling a recognition that if he does somehow manage to string more than two words together consecutively, the result will inevitably consist of fatuous offensive clichés, or is it a cunning attempt to dissociate himself from them?
Er er er, bumble wumble, ow-ow-our [smirks] European friends [the AfD], the-the-the…, um, ipso facto [smugly], I-I-I, letterbox, i-i-s a… er, world-beating [Ha], um, roadmap, blah, [ruffles hair “endearingly”], Winston, er er… (what was his name again?) pifflepafflewifflewaffle steady ship… um, um um, cavalry…
Well he said, you’ll be the greatest president in the history of, but you know what, I’ll take that also, but that you could be. But he said, will be the greatest president but I would also accept the other. In other words, if you do your job, but I accept that. Then I watched him interviewed and it was like he never even was here. It’s incredible. I watched him interviewed a week later and it’s like he was never in my office. And you can even say that.
Or perhaps the difference is that Tweety blundered on relentlessly [enjoy that past tense], whereas Spaffer peppers his own drivel with cute hesitancy. So much for oratory (and for fluent impromptu exposition in Indian raga, click here).
Created at a time when the idea of either of them being allowed anywhere near power seemed utterly ludicrous, Paul Whitehouse’s character of Rowley Birkin QC combined the posh Spaffer mannerisms and the relentless Tweety gibberish (playlist):
Here’s Matt Lucas:
Recently a Spaffer–Birkin hybrid has emerged:
I might have a greater tolerance of such eccentricity for a politician not wallowing in a cesspit of opportunism, xenophobia, and duplicity. For a less-than-ringing endorsement from a former colleague (“a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgment”), click here.
“What I can tell you is this“: on behalf of the, um, stammering “community”, I would like to dissociate myself from this kind of flummery—FFS, either get a proper speech impediment or just learn to engage mouth with “brain”. Ideally, go away.
I never cease to be amazed by newspapers which shyly make him say “f***ing black c***”, leaving intact the one word which aroused Mr Ferdinand’s wrath,
and calling on the unlikely couple of Charlotte Brontë and Ken Loach. See also this LRB review of a book on a 1923 trial revolving around women’s use of “foul language”, class, and the uses and abuses of literacy—with a pre-echo of Paul Kratochvil’s splendid story in a quote from 1930: “soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning that ‘a noun is coming’ “.
In Stewart Lee‘s latest book March of the lemmings (2019—not aka The bumper book of Stewart Lee jokes: jolly japes for all the family) he pursues the style of How I escaped my certain fate with typically expansive Teutonic footnotes to the script of his show Contentprovider [or should that be C***ent provider?]. In one of these, warming to several topics, he reflects on the efficacity of his “so-called comedy” with purposeful, insistent use of “the c-word (cunt)”—which I hereby feel obliged to emulate.
First we should hear him doing the live version that prompted this tirade, since it gains so much from his masterly inflection, timbre, timing, and delivery:
And it isn’t, to be fair, you know, and I think—look, we’re gonna leave the EU, that is happening, and I think people have gotta put their differences behind them now and try and make it work. And I—I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about people that voted to leave Europe anyway, because people voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, you know, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe. Cunts did as well, didn’t they? Stupid fucking cunts. Racists, and cunts, and people with legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe.*
So here’s the footnote:
* How does this joke, which drew tears and cheers, even though I say it myself, night after night for the best part of two years, work? (1) Firstly, shock. I rarely swear on stage, and compared to most edgelord stand-ups, my swears count is probably only one level up from the sort of acts who market themselves as “clean” to get gigs at hospices run by born-again Christians. So it is a funny shock to hear me abandon my usual vocabulary and say the c-word (cunt). The c-word (cunt) is probably a way-too-heavy word to use here, and the deployment of such a disproportionately heavy weapon is part of what makes choosing to do [it] so funny. (2) The structure of the bit has a relationship with the much-touted idea that liberal Remainers should look outside their bubble and seek to understand the fears and concerns that drove 17.4 million people to vote Leave (“People voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe…”), but then subverts the progression of thought by just calling them the c-word (cunts). To quote an old Lee and Herring routine, or possibly Viz’s Mr Logic, “Our expectations were subverted, from whence the humour arose”. (3) This second idea is then given what we in the trade call a “topper” by doubling back on the original premise and conceding that some Leave voters may also have “legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe”. There is then a second topper, in the form of a letter from a punter [“Dear Palace Theatre, Southend, please inform the “comedian”, and I use that word advisedly, Stewart Lee, who I had the misfortune of being taken along by friends to see last night, that I actually voted to leave Europe and I am neither a racist nor a cunt. Merely someone with genuine anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe. Yours, A. Cunt, Burnham-on-Crouch.”], which is a real letter (with the name changed) received during an early stage of the show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe try-outs, which just replays the joke again but in a funny voice and with more swearing, and with the town the complainer comes from changed to some local place every night—in this case, Burnham-on-Crouch.
By now the c-word (cunt) has long become a veritable mantra. The ever-expanding footnote goes on to do battle with Lee’s critics, with a plea for context:
The Tory Brexiteer and Sun columnist Tony Parson, in the February 2019 edition of GQ, the sort of style and status bible Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would read in between dismembering prostitutes in a penthouse apartment, wrote, on the subject of the c-word (cunt):
In the little corner of Essex where I grew up,”c***” was practically a punctuation mark among men and boys [see above—SJ]. It was in the foul air we breathed. But it grates now. It feels like the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women. And what I find bewildering is that it is not just thick ignorant oafs who use the c-word with such abandon. It is the woke. It is the enlightened. It is the professionally sensitive. It is the Guardian columnist, the BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left. “It wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe,” Stewart Lee recently quipped, “C***s did as well. Stupid fucking [sic!] c***s.” Does Lee’s use of the word sound rational or healthy? Does it provoke tears of mirth? Do you think it might persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong? Some of my best friends are Remainers, but such spittle-flecked fury when using the word “c***s” makes Brexit sound like the very least of Lee’s problems.
Obviously, like Julia Hartley-Brewer and other Conservative Twitter types who alighted on the Brexit bit, Parson removed the qualifying section that followed it, where I acknowledge the out-of-touch nature of the so-called liberal elite in London, which in turn buys me some leeway, and also makes the subsequent attack on the so-called non-liberal non-elite more of a surprise; and Parson, presumably knowing little of my work, doesn’t appreciate that the use of the c-word (cunt) reads to my audience here in a comical way precisely because using it is so out of character. It is not the swear word in and of itself that brought the house down nightly. It has to have context.
And of course, the word isn’t delivered with “relish”, and it isn’t “spittle-flecked” either. The c-word (cunt) is delivered here with a kind of despairing calm, as if the cuntishness of the Brexit c-words (cunts) was just a sad matter of fact. When I was directing Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer: the opera at the National Theatre in 2003 (as I am sure I have written before), we were given the benefit of the theatre’s voice coach for one session, who took the singers aside to teach them to enunciate all the libretto’s swear words and curses, to spit them out with relish. I waited for the session to subside, respectfully, and then had to unravel the work that had been done. The swear words weren’t necessarily to be sung in that spirit at all. For the most part, they represented the disenfranchised Americans working, in heightened emotional states, at the edges of the limited vocabulary that was available to them, and had to be used to convey not simply hate and venom, but also love, hope, despair and longing, the feelings expressed in Richard’s music. If I’d really wanted this particular c-word (cunt) to read with spittle-flecked relish, you’d have known about it. There’d have been spittle on the lens. I’m not averse to spitting on stage (on an imaginary Graham Norton, for example), so a lens would hold no terrors for me. To me, the c-word (cunt) here was mainly about how utter despair drove the beaten and frustrated Remainer character on stage (me) to the outer limits of his inarticulacy, painstakingly logical arguments against Brexit having broken down into mere swears.
And I didn’t “quip” the line either. One thing you will never see me doing is quipping. My work is too laborious and self-aware to ever include a comic device as light-hearted as a “quip”, and if I see one, I usually have it surgically removed from my script, or at least quarantined between ironic inverted commas (“Oh yeah, I can do jokes”). [Here’s a rare, and sadly very funny, example—SJ] And obviously, the bit was not in any way intended to “persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong”, so it is stupid to criticise it for failing to achieve something it never set out to do. That’s like saying that Fawlty towers, for example, was written to encourage hoteliers to control their tempers; or that the very funny playground joke that ends with the line “Lemon entry, my dear Watson” was written to encourage Sherlock Holmes to keep suitable anal-sex lubricants close to hand for his congress with Watson, rather than relying on whatever out-of-date fruit preserves he could find in his larder.
Maybe I came onto Parson’s radar of late because I talked about Brexit, which he and his employer the Sun support, or because I am now one of those “cultural figures” that informed commentators like him are supposed to know about (“God! Haven’t you heard of Stewart Lee, Tony? I can’t believe it!”), who get praised in the London Review of Books, and get called the greatest living stand-ups in TheTimes, irrespective of their perceived market penetration or popularity. For Parson I am a “woke… enlightened… professionally sensitive… BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left”, which is hardly news, as it’s essentially what I describe myself as on stage, having done lazy Parson’s work for him.
Nonetheless, it’s odd to be called out as evidence of “the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women” in a magazine whose website has a “Hottest Woman of the Week” feature. It’s such an odd phrase, “the rancid tip of a cesspit”, that I had to go online and google pictures of cesspits to make sure I had understood what one was.
In my newspaper columns, I deliberately try to mangle my metaphors, writing in character as a man with imposter syndrome who is out of his depth in a posh newspaper and is trying to overcompensate with complex language that is beyond him. But Parson’s incoherence, as brilliantly parodied each month in Viz, is effortless. A cesspit is, literally, a pit full of cess. It can’t have a tip as it is not a conical solid. The only way a cesspit could have a tip is if it were somehow upended and its contents swiftly hardened in some kind of large-scale commercial drying unit, and the remaining cylinder or cuboid (depending on the shape of the pit that had moulded the cess within it) then sharpened at one end, perhaps using an enormous pencil sharpener rotated by shire horses on some kind of mill harness, or by Parson himself, until it formed the rancid tip Parson described. The only way a cesspit could have a natural tip would be if the body of the cesspit itself were conical, which perhaps they were “in the little corner of Essex where Parson grew up.
In fact, there is an Essex folk-song, collected by the archivist Shirley Collins inthe ’50s from the old traveller singer Gonad Bushell, that goes:
I’m a Billericay gypsy, Billericay is my home,
My house it is a caravan, my cesspit is a cone,
And if I want to see the cess become a rancid tip,
I tip the cesspit upside down, then dry and sharpen it!
And the curlew is a-calling in the morning.
[This is worthy of Stella Gibbons—e.g. Cold Comfort Farm, or her brilliant Britten pastiche—SJ]
Parson may have a point about the c-word (cunt), though I don’t really think my Brexit bit is hugely relevant to his discussion, and seems to be cranked in as part of some kind of twisted vengeance. Out of academic curiosity, I wondered what the dictionary definition of the c-word (cunt) was, and to my surprise, when I turned to it, there was just a massive picture of Tony Parson’s face. And it had all arrows pointing towards it as well.
Imagine writing the sort of space-filling shit Parson does, day after day. At least my columns are supposed to be stupid.
Back at the routine, Lee moves on ineluctably to the Brexiteers’ fatuous topos of bendy bananas (demolished e.g. here; also a theme of his columns, such as here and here, the latter included in March of the lemmings):
People did vote to leave Europe for all different sorts of—they did, don’t snigger away down there—they voted for all, you know, not everyone that voted to leave Europe wanted to see Britain immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some people just wanted bendy bananas, didn’t they? “Oh no, I only wanted bendy bananas, and now there’s this chaotic inferno of hate.” “Oh well, never mind, at least the bananas are all bendy again, aren’t they?” Like they always fucking were.
In the second half of the show he adapts the Brexit material into an “I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about Americans who voted for Trump…” routine:
Not all Americans who voted for Trump wanted to see America immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some Americans just wanted to be allowed to wear their Ku Klux Klan outfits to church, didn’t they?
And still the footnotes to the script persist. Like How I escaped my certain fate, Lee’s comments are worth reading in full.
Among the controversial, countercultural icons who drove themselves to an early grave was Lenny Bruce(1925–66), “America’s No.1 Vomic”.
With my penchant for jazz biographies, in a similar vein [sic] is the extraordinary book
Albert Goldman (from the journalism of Lawrence Schiller), Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! (1974). *
(Do read this most perceptive review by Wallace Markfield—interestingly garbled in the course of digitisation.)
The opening chapter, “A day in the life”, is a dazzling, graphic, blow-by-blow reconstruction of his arrival in New York in 1960 for a gig at the Blue Angel. Just a taster:
Around ten, a yellow cab, somewhat unsteadily driven, pulls up before a narrow gray dilapidated building on one of the crummiest sidestreets off the Square. Above the spattered pavement an extinguished neon sign flaps patches of cold hard shadow across the stone steps: HOTEL AMERICA, FREE PARKING. The cab opens with a jolt, back doors flying open so that two bare-headed men dressed in identical black raincoats can begin to crawl out from the debris within. […]
The night before, they wound up a very successful three-week run in Chicago at the Cloisters with a visit to the home of a certain hip show-biz druggist—a house so closely associated with drugs that show people call it the “shooting gallery”. Terry smoked a couple of joints, dropped two blue tabs of mescaline and skin-popped some Dilaudid; at the airport bar he also downed a couple of double Scotches. Lenny did his usual number: twelve 1/16th-grain Dilaudid pills counted out of a big brown bottle like saccharins, dissolved in a 1-cc. ampule of Methedrine, heated in a blackened old spoon over a shoe-struck lucifer and the resulting soup ingested from the leffel into a disposable needle and then whammed into the mainline until you feel like you’re living inside an igloo. […]
The America is one of the most bizarre hotels in the world: a combination whorehouse, opium den and lunatic asylum.
As Lenny honed his act at strip clubs, Goldman explores his background in
the fast-talking, pot-smoking, shtick-trading hipsters and hustlers who lent him his idiom, his rhythm, his taste in humor and his typically cynical and jaundiced view of society.
He describes Lenny’s connection with comics like Joe Ancis, Mort Sahl, and George Carlin. Joe
insisted on schlepping Kenny and Lenny to the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art, taking them on whirlwind tours of both collections with his rapidly wagging tongue doing service as a catalog, guidebook and art-history course. “The fuckin’ Monet, schlepped out, half dead, in his last period, you dig? Painting water lilies—is that ridiculous! Water lilies, man, giant genius paintings, man, like the cat is ready to pack it in, but he has to blow one last out-chorus!
The book’s gory details of drug-taking and its paraphernalia, a staple of jazz biographies (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker (here and here), John Coltrane, and so on), are unsurpassed, and as Markfield observes “could easily serve as basic text in a graduate seminar on mainlining”.
Much as I love Chet’s ballads, he seems to have traded on his early angelic, melancholy image merely as a means to the end of a constant supply of drugs; whereas for Lenny the drugs and the performance went hand in hand, evoking the explorations and discipline of Billie and Miles. Amidst all the squalor, the book evokes the technique of Lenny’s creativity, the way he played the room (cf. Stewart Lee’s labyrinthine footnotes):
Suddenly, he lowers his head and shoots a bold glance into the house—a real arched-brow zinger. “Looks like some faggot decorator went nuts here with a staple gun!” Bam! He’s in, they’re tittering. Then he goes for the extension: “Whoo-who!” (high fag scream) “It’s just got to flow like this!” (big wrist flap and faggy, camp gestures as he dances around triggering off staples with his thumb). They’re starting to laugh. Now for a quick change-up. Take them into his confidence. “You know, when I was a kid, I always dreamed about going to a nightclub.” Nice, easy mood, nostalgia. Then into the thirties movie bits with the George Raft takes and the Eugene Pallette club-owner pushing back the panel in the office to get a view of the stage and the little shaded lamps on the tables and the tuxes and the deep-cleft gowns and the hair on the guys bayed back at the temples and Lenny home from the movies standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a scissors cutting away the hair from his temples so he’d have a hairline like Brian Aherne or Robert Taylor and then his disillusionment years later when he went to the Copa for the first time and everything was so tacky and there wasn’t even a men’s room attendant and they had whisky bottles right on the table like a Bay Parkway Jewish wedding and … and … and … By the balls! They’re hanging on his words. Eating out of his hand! Kvelling because it’s their experience—but exactly!
Indeed, not just Lenny’s lifestyle but the techniques of his free-flowing stage routine have aptly been likened to bebop:
He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall. Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that just came to him from out there—from recall, fantasy, prophecy.
A point at which, like the practitioners of automatic writing, his tongue would outrun his mind and he would be saying things he didn’t plan to say, things that surprised, delighted him, cracked him up—as if he were a spectator at his own performance!
In another passage, Goldman comments:
The ghetto idiom was far more than a badge of hipness to Lenny Bruce: it was a paradigm of his art. For what the language of the slums teaches a born talker is, first, the power of extreme linguistic compression, and, second, the knack of reducing things to their vital essences in thought and image.
Jazz slang is pure abstraction. It consists of tight, monosyllabic that suggest cons in the “big house” mumbling surreptitiously out of the corners of their mouths. Words like “dig”, “groove” and “hip” are atomic compactions of meaning. They’re as hard and tight and tamped down as any idiom this side of the Rosetta Stone. `if any new expression comes along that can’t be compressed into such a brief little bark, jazz slang starts digesting it, shearing off a word here, a syllable there, until the original phrase has been cut down to a ghetto short.
The same impatient process of short-circuiting the obvious and capping on the conventional was obvious in jazz itself. […] Listening to Be-Bop, you’d be hard put to say whether it was the most laconic or the most prolix of jazz styles. At the very same that it was brooming out of jazz all the old clichés, it was floridly embellishing the new language with breathtaking runs and ornaments and arabesques. Hipster language was equally florid at times, delighting in far-fetched conceits and taxing circumlocution. A man over forty, for example, was said to be “on the Jersey side of the snatch play”.
But whereas for jazzers music made a pure, abstract language transcending their mundane lifestyle, Lenny’s act was inevitably entangled with it. He was getting busted for his act as well as his medicinal habits, becoming ensnared in a series of obscenity trials. But he was at his very best for the midnight gig at Carnegie Hall on 3rd February 1961, again brilliantly evoked by Goldman—riffing on topics such as moral philosophy, patriotism, the flag, homosexuality, Jewishness, humour, Communism, Kennedy, Eisenhower, drugs, venereal disease, the Ku Klux Klan, the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly Berman. Had he lived on, an invitation to today’s White House seems unlikely. Goldman reflects:
What else is this whole jazz trip? You take your seat inside the cat’s head, like you’re stepping into one of those little cars in a funhouse. Then, pulled by some dark chain that you can’t shut off, you plunge into the darkness, down the inclines, up the slopes, around the sharp bends and into the dead ends; past bizarre, grotesque window displays and gooney, lurid frights and spectacles and whistles and sirens and scares—and even a long dark moody tunnel of love. It’s all a trip—and the best of it is that you don’t have the faintest idea where you’re going!
Here’s one of several video clips of his live act (more here, as well as many audio recordings online):
London Chapter 10, “Persecution” describes Lenny’s 1962 sojourn at Peter Cook’s new London club The Establishment—designed to elude the censoring scissors of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, “maiming English stage plays since the 16th century”. Indeed, this was part of an exchange of hostages that led to the Beyond the Fringe team’s long run on Broadway—International Cultural Exchange, YAY!
Lenny in London! Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Like James Brown at the Bolshoi. Or Little Richard at La Scala.
(Nice idea, but not so bizarre—neither London, Moscow, nor Milan are so culturally monochrome…)
The Establishment was preparing a skit that depicted Christ Jesus as an upper-class gent hung between two cockney-talking thieves, who complain in their petty, rancorous way: “ ’E’s getting all the vinegar sponges!”
Goldman goes on:
Lenny’s notions of England—compounded from old Hollywood flicks and Alec Guinness imports—were queer, to say the least. As Jonathan Miller summed them up, Lenny saw Great Britain as “a country set in the heart of India bossed by a Queen who wore a ball dress. The population had bad teeth, wore drab clothes and went in for furtive and bizarre murders”.
Not all of this was so wide of the mark.
As Lenny’s apostle Kenneth Tynan observed,
If Beyond the fringe was a pinprick, Mr Bruce was a bloodbath.
As ever, critical responses were polarized. Brian Glanville later wrote in TheSpectator:
Bruce has taken humour farther, and deeper, than any of the new wave of American comedians. […] Indeed, the very essence of the new wave is that one hears an individual voice talking, giving vent to its own perception and, in Bruce’s case, its own obsessions. An act such as this requires a good deal more than exhibitionism; it also need courage and passion. Essentially, it is not “sick” humour at all. The word is a tiresome irrelevance—but super-ego humour: a brave voice calling from the nursery.
He was denied entry the following year as an “undesirable alien”.
I’d be curious to learn what Alan Bennett thought of Lenny, but his influence on Dud ‘n’ Pete can be heard in their later foul-mouthed Derek and Clive recordings. Christopher Hitchens wrote a fine article on these transatlantic comedy genealogies.
Goldman devotes a perceptive chapter to “The greatest trial on earth”, a high-profile obcenity case over six months in Manhattan in 1964. Despite support from an array of prominent literati, Lenny was sentenced; freed on bail pending an appeal, as his mental and physical health went into a tailspin, exacerbated by paranoia over litigation, he died in squalor.
The only flaw I find with Goldman’s brilliant book is that it lacks an index. See also Doubletalk.
* * *
All this is a far cry from the bland hagiography of Chinese biographies. And the book reminds me again that the post-war era before the Swinging Sixties wasn’t entirely drab and conformist (see e.g. Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder). It also highlights issues of free speech, which are so urgent today. By comparison with Lenny, the challenging routines of Richard Pryor, or Stewart Lee, seem almost genteel. Still, the latter’s travails over Jerry Springer: the opera, detailed in How I escaped my certain fate, and his ripostes in “Stand-up comedian” (2005) and ” ’90s comedian” (2006), richly deserve attention; while Lee too highlights his debt to free jazz, his art is acutely disciplined (for his thoughts on Lenny, see here).
One of the challenges of maintaining this blog is to overhaul all the categories and tags in the sidebar, although they remain rough and ready. After all, Life Itself is about classifying, organizing—plastic toys, musical instruments (indeed both), bookshelves, shopping lists, concepts, and so on. Here are a few headings:
on emic-etic classifications, Nigel Barley is also drôle (here, under “Rapport”).
Scholars’ attempts to classify expressive culture in China illustrate how we need a fluid concept of genres, constantly intersecting and crossing borders, as I outlined in my review of the great Anthology. Ethnography is the key.
Organology is a fascinating topic, with the endlessly fascinating Sachs–Hornbostel system:
As ever, he reformulates motifs from previous work, just like Bach and Miles Davis [fine new submission for Pseuds’ corner—Ed.]. But what I respectfully wish to submit [m’lud] is the passage from 20.31. He goes on (and on, and on):
[Nuttall is] only trying as best he can to ensure the future domestic prosperity of Bulgaria—I don’t doubt that for a minute. […]
I live here, in the People’s Republic of Hackney, in northeast London. It’s very culturally diverse (not really in this audience). I’ve had kids at nursery and playgroup here. And what they do at the nurseries and playgroups in Hackney, they celebrate all the different kids’ festivals and cultural events in what you might call a logical, sensitive, and pragmatic approach to cultural diversity… “gone mad”. They celebrate Christian Christmas, Chinese New Year, Muslim Michaelmas, Atheist April Fool’s Day, Pantheists’ Pancake Day, Odinist Oatcake Day, and Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Harvest Festival […]
But, EDL members and Daily Telegraph readers relax—they do celebrate St George’s Day as well. On St George’s Day they told me I had to send my little two-year-old girl into the Hackney playgroup dressed in traditional English costume. So I sent her in dressed as a 1970s’ English football hooligan, with a cross of St George and all swastikas drawn on her face… and I had her drunk on Special Brew, and high on amphetamines… I gave her sharpened coins to throw at horses, and I had her shouting,
“I’m English, I’m English! Wanna make something of it?”
Now, that led to a misunderstanding… and the police became involved. “Apparently if you say you’re English these days you get arrested and thrown in jail…”
The dénouement there refers back to his exchange with a taxi driver:
The bigoted taxi driver has long been a regular guest in his routines, as here.
I do appreciate that I will now look like the worst kind of BBC liberal apologist idiot if you’re all sitting at home watching this dubbed into Bulgarian. With Romanian subtitles.
All this ploughs a somewhat different furrow from that of The Archers. For more on being English, see here.
Alexei Sayle‘s memoir Stalin ate my homework, on his, um, unusual upbringing, is at once heartfelt, perceptive, and hilarious. And the sequel Thatcher stole my trousers* has insights on the alternative comedy scene, his early standup, and The Young ones.
Born in 1952 to idealistic left-wing atheist Jewish working-class parents—genial Joe and the brilliantly indiscreet Molly—he evokes the conditions of post-war Anfield with wry detail.
Though not universal, it was instinctual among a great many British Communists to be noisily unpatriotic. […] To my parents and their friends it was as if by cheering on the English football team, the cricket team, or Britain’s runners you were somehow revelling in slavery, the Amritsar Massacre, the suppression of the Irish, or the Opium Wars.
At primary school:
At break-time in the first week our teacher, Miss Wilson, said to the assembled class, “All right, class, now let’s bow our heads in prayer and thank God for this milk we’re drinking.” At which point I stood up and said, “No, Miss Wilson, I think you’ll find that the milk comes to us via the Milk Marketing Board, a public body set up in 1933 to control the production, pricing, and distribution of milk and other dairy products within the UK. It has nothing to do with the intervention of some questionable divine entity.”
Profiting from [!] the free rail travel available to the family with his father’s position in the National Union of Railwaymen [sic], the family often took holidays abroad: “by the age of five I must have been the most travelled child in Anfield.” They soon began making trips behind the Iron curtain—At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, I note. To pursue the latest results of my interest in east Europe, it’s these vignettes that I’d like to cite here.
For all his parent’s aspirations, Alexei casts a rather more detached view on their holidays. Of course, they could hardly imagine the tribulations of the working people with whom they identified, or even the apparatchiks who hosted them. But with his own background, he does more than merely getting a cheap laugh out of state socialism. These passages are interesting mainly for his own story, in which idealism and cynicism evolved hand in hand, a surreal training that would bear fruit in his later career.
Joe and Molly had taken the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising in their stride; welcoming it as a test of faith, they scorned British Communists who
didn’t understand that the march towards liberty, peace, and freedom couldn’t be held up by a load of people demanding liberty, peace, and freedom.
Enthralled by a visit to the Czechoslovak pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, with its marionettes, Magic Lantern Theatre, and colourful avant-garde design, in August 1959 visited the country for the first time. Somehow their trip begins at a campsite in the sleepy spa-town of Karlovy Vary. After an interlude at a union-owned miners’ sanitorium, the wheels of diplomacy click into gear and they are rescued by a fleet of black Tatra limousines which takes them on to Prague, where they are chaperoned lavishly.
Next year they organized a group of like-minded comrades for another visit. This time the authorities
had decided what the first delegation of British railwaymen to Czechoslovakia would like to see more than anything else were sights, locations, and exhibitis connected with the wartime assassination of Reinhard Heidrich, the butcher of Prague.
They were among early foreign visitors to see Lidice, scene of one of the most appalling Nazi massacres. On a brighter note, they were taken to the Švejk pub in Prague, and when they got back home his parents bought him a copy of Hašek’s novel. When he eventually read it aged 12 or 13, he
wondered if the Czech authorities knew what they were doing promoting with Švejk, letting a pub be opened in his name and selling cuddly toys in his likeness, since the message of the book, while it might have been anti-authoritarian, is certainly not one supportive of the ideals of socialist conformity.
Anyway, back in Anfield, by the age of eight Alexei was able to report proudly to an eager young vicar,
“I am a Comrade Cadet, Grade One, Young Pioneers, fourth battalion, based at Locomotive Factory Number One, town of Trutnow, People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia!”
And one already feels a hint of the irony that would later inhabit Alexei’s stage persona (see here), with a substantial ingredient of Švejk.
For their summer holidays in 1961 they visited Hungary, lavishly accommodated in a grand baroque hotel in keeping with their incongruous status as VIPs. On a trip to Lake Balaton Alexei discovers salad, in a passage that will strike a chord with those of our generation:
Back in Anfield we had thought with a certain amount of pride that on Sundays we had been eating salad, but really all we had been eating was lettuce and tomatoes in a bowl, sometimes with a hard-boiled egg on the top and no dressing except perhaps the industrial solvent known as “salad cream”. Now I saw what a salad really could be under socialism. There were red, green, and yellow peppers, corn on the cob, huge tomatoes stuffed with Russian salad, artichokes, celery, lentils, okra, and fresh herbs, all of them covered in rich oils or mayonnaise.
(For Nina Stibbe’s candid assessment of tarragon, see here.)
He accumulates yet more pennants and badges to accompany his hoard of Bohemian glass, dolls, and “folklorique woven things” that he didn’t know what to do with—
It was hard to stop people in Communist countries giving you things [an idea taken further by Elif Batuman].
In 1962 they took their third trip to Czechoslovakia, and in 1963 Joe led a delegation of railwaymen to Hungary. This time Alexei’s feelings are more conflicted:
Sadly, if you are beginning to feel unsettled about people’s motivation then visiting a country in which some six hundred thousand citizens were deported to Soviet labour camps after the Second World War, where they spoke a weird Finno-Ugric language completely unrelated to those around it, where there were great tensions between the various ethnic groupings, Hungarian, Romanian, and gypsy, and where a revolution had been brutally suppressed only seven years before, probably wasn’t a good idea.
Joe and Molly make elaborate preparations for a tour of the northwest by a dance troupe from Czechoslovakia, but it falls through. In summer 1966 they flew to Bulgaria under the auspices of that new bourgeois creation, a package holiday. Meeting some local teenagers in search of Beatles records, he realizes that
up until then we had only ever mixed with people who were part of the system, who were loyal to the party and its allied organizations. […] Clearly there were tensions, but you didn’t get to be a Communist without learning to ignore what was in front of your face.
With his affinity with both railways and Czechoslovakia, he was always going to love Closely observed trains(Jiří Menzel, 1966)—another of those films that also left a deep impression on my student years. For Pachelbel on rubber chicken, and Czech trains, see here; and for Alexei’s penchant for Polish cinema, here.
Following Kruschev’s reforms,
though slightly assuaged by the crushing of revolts in Hungary and East Germany, many in the West’s Communist movements were uneasy with this liberalisation. They didn’t like the idea of a Communist society allowing its citizens to express their opinions freely or have a choice of more than one type of hat. Yet they had nowhere to take their disaffection until the Sino-Soviet split offered these puritan characters a choice of an extra-dour kind of socialism more in keeping with their sententious inclinations.
So, going from frying-pan to fire in a remarkable lapse of judgement, Alexei became a Maoist. You can continue reading his later story for yourself, moving on to his perceptive account of his bohemian life at art school in London, his role in alternative comedy—and Molly’s blooming [see what I did there?] as a foul-mouthed lollipop lady. For more (not least his critique of ballroom dancing), see here.
So while Alexei didn’t get to play the Matthew passionor hang out with Li Manshan (though both are charming fantasies), I regard his upbringing, not to mention his later career, with a certain envy.
For other excellent memoirs in what can be a dodgy field, I think of George Melly and Arthur Smith. And this chat with Stewart Lee is a match made in heaven:
* Sinology could do with some titles like these (for a somewhat less appetising one, see under Jarring here).
I read that indeed the term didn’t become common until the 1980s—just in time to greet me on my late arrival (for some words that Shakespeare may not have invented, see here). The Chinese wiki article on laowai makes a useful succinct introduction, explaining its interplay of respect and xenophobia. I’m still curious to learn how the winning combo of lao and wai suddenly caught on. A detailed forum on the nuances of this and related terms has been initiated by the erudite Victor Mair, so here I’ll just add a few personal reflections.
A still more blunt term is dabizi 大鼻子 “big nose”; foreigners in China have to get used to frequent appraisals of their physiognomy, but as an autonym, at least, the term can be drôle. I’m also fond of the more quaintly retro yang guizi 洋鬼子 (“foreign devil”), which a senior Taiwanese mentor—and, crucially, friend!—likes to call me. As ever, such terms are context-sensitive; they may even confirm guanxi (“You’re my mate—we can take the piss together”).
At a tangent, in Shaanbei a fine shawm-band leader is widely known as Jiekazi “The Stammerer”—in rural China, attitudes towards stammering are both less po-faced and less courteous.
“Waiguoren!” (not yet “Laowai!”). Craig Clunas, Ming tombs 1975.
Staying with China (derogatory terms for foreigners are of course a rich topic worldwide), apart from the various historical terms (hu 胡, fan 番, yi 夷, man 蠻, and so on—mostly with a strong suggestion of “barbarian”), I’m now curious to learn how the Labouring Masses of the Tang dynasty would have hailed the substantial number of laowai on the streets of 8th-century Xi’an in the popular argot of the day.
We may now regard the Tang as the first great world-music boom, but as musical nationalists of the day (like the poet Bai Juyi and his mate Yuan Zhen) might have said,
“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy bili and pipa…”
Or their Qing-dynasty counterparts (so does building walls work, then? Eh??):
“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy erhuandsuona and yangqin…”
Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives, studying foreign make-up;
Entertainers present foreign sounds, servants to foreign music!
Straight out of the Daily Mail, that. With the current surge in “patriotism”, a new campaign to purge corrupting foreign influence from the Chinese instrumentarium would be left mainly with the xun ocarina and the sheng mouth-organ—which might fail to excite even Uncle Xi. It’s ironic that after successive waves, it was the Model Operas of the Cultural Revolution that were largely responsible for a renewed vogue for the instruments of the Western Art Music tradition.
Closer to home (yet equally apposite), a classic rebuke to xenophobia is the great Stewart Lee’s UKIP routine (“Bloody Huguenots, Coming Over Here—doubting trans-substantiation, with their famed ability to weave little jerkins out of lace…”). And to supplement his fantasy chat down the UKIP pub:
“Apparently the guitar is descended from the oud—that’s bloody Moorish, mate! What’s wrong with Morris dancing, that’s wot I say!”
[Inconvenient footnote: an inconclusive etymology suggests that “Morris” is itself derived from “Moorish”…]
 See e.g. Suzanne E. Cahill, “Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives! Western influences of Tang dynasty women’s fashion”, in Steele and Major (eds), China chic: East meets West. Among many works, see also Marc S. Abramson (ed.), Ethnic identity in Tang China. The works of Edward Schafer (notably The golden peaches of Samarkand and The vermilion bird, written at a time when such study was neither profitable nor popular) have long been an inspiration for those studying Central Asian culture in the Tang.
Perhaps it’s time for a pensée, or apercu, about some of the seemingly incongruous juxtapositions on this blog.
I realize some of these jokes may try the patience of disgruntled readers who have come here, in all innocence, seeking insights into the Wisdom of the Ancient Sages or the Mastery (sic) of the Great Composers. And indeed vice versa: anyone here for laughs will be pretty cheesed off to have to plough through blow-by-blow accounts of Daoist ritual and Messiaen.
Humour has always played a major role in my rapport both with my colleagues and local subjects—but that’s not the card I’m going to play.
Rather, humour can serve to console, to resist, to create ludic connections. It’s no more universal than music—but just as in Daoist ritual (which not only uses language creatively but incorporates segments to entertain mere mortals), and just as in WAM (thinking, for instance, of Haydn and Mozart), humour reminds us of our humanity.
Anyway, I like it.
Jokes (again, like Daoist ritual) are created by people, they take on a life of their own, transmitted in different versions over time for changing audiences. And despite silent, empty, versions in print, they thrive on and evolve through live interaction in performance.
However (and once again, like ritual or music), I’m sure this can become less satisfying for the professional, churning out the same routine night after night for an unfamiliar audience. That’s why Stewart Lee is so great, and it’s what makes his book How I escaped my certain fate so thoughtful. But that’s not important right now.
The version of the sardine joke handed down to posterity in the orchestral biz (which beyond Gary’s own recollections has some further effective, if fanciful, detail) goes like this:
Once (this must have been in the mid-70s) he was on tour in South America with the London Sinfonietta, doing the, um, challenging Eight Songs for a Mad King.
So Gary’s at this fancy British Council reception after the gig in Buenos Aires or somewhere, getting quietly pissed in a corner on his own, and this posh bird comes up to him and goes,
“I say, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced—weren’t you playing in the concert? I did so enjoy your delightful rendition of that charming work!” [that’s a nice touch, by the way, if you know the piece, “but that’s not important right now”].
“Do please remind me,” she goes on, “what was it you were playing?”
“Oh, I fool around a bit on the drums, luv,” goes Gary—”So wot you doin’ ‘ere then?”
“I’m here with my husband.” she replies loftily.
Gary goes on, chummily, “An’ wot does your old man do then, darlin’?”
“My husband’s in oil!” she exclaims, proudly.
Gary goes, “What is he, a fuckin’ sardine?”
I like the details here. And the punchline is a good instance of the importance of the word “fuckin’ ”—not least for rhythm and euphony. The story also reflects musos’ own delight in “deviating from behavioural norms”.
Keen as I am on the ancestry of texts (my book ch.11), just as one does in exploring the relation and transmission of Daoist texts (well, I say “one”…), I wonder: Gary’s not sure, but could he have heard it from Tom O’Connor, or did they both get it from someone else, and so on (zzz)?
The Tom O’Connor version is less personal and less funny—which is precisely what makes it a suitable victim for Stew to mangle, a banal ground-bass lying prone for his endless florid divisions, a Goldberg variations from hell…
The doctor says: “Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to stop masturbating.”
“Oh no,” says the man. “Why?”
“Because,” says the doctor, “I’m trying to examine you.”
This is another instance of what is known (ironically, in this case) as the “pull back and reveal”, where you (zzz) describe something and then reveal that the situation is not what people would expect. Stewart Lee gives it a typically thorough going-over (How I escaped my certain fate, p.196–7).
made minor chocolate ripples by suggesting in print that a middle-class woman called Flora Shedden, and her chocolate carousel, were booted off the BBC’s Bake Off cake contest in favour of Muslim mum Nadiya Hussain, gay doctor Tamal Ray and “new man” Ian Cumming, because she wasn’t “politically correct” enough. Perhaps, wrote Platell, “if she’d made a chocolate mosque she’d have stood a better chance”.
The idea that a chocolate mosque would have scored better than a chocolate carousel suggests a baking competition in which, as well as for the technical quality of the cake, points are also awarded for the meaning and cultural significance of the thing that the cake is made to look like.
The idea that Shedden lost because she didn’t make a chocolate mosque would only hold water had she been in competition with other cakes that had also been baked into the shape of culturally, socially or politically significant icons, saturated with meanings designed to appeal to the liberally biased judges of Platell’s fecund imagination; i.e. a sponge Unitarian chapel, a meringue women’s refuge, a fudge abortion clinic, or an icing sugar Tom Daley. As this was not the case, and her fellow competitors’ cakes were not baked in shapes smothered with inference, it is spurious to suggest that the outcome of the cake contest was decided on these terms.
An obvious subtext to Platell’s story is that the other contestants were favoured, irrespective of the quality of their cake work, because they fulfilled some kind of politically correct quota, such as “Muslim mum” and “gay doctor”. But the idea that this could be a deciding factor is undermined by the presence of the third victor, Ian Cumming, for whom the best denigrating epithet that the increasingly desperate Platell can find is “new man”, a phrase last used pejoratively by a woman wearing legwarmers in the early 1980s.
Anyway, I’m still fond of the musos’ PC version of the Missa Solemnis:
Here’s a typically tenuous connection with ritual. On the subject of transmission, this piece from Stewart Lee is rewarding as ever:
—as well as his still more thoughtful reflections in How I escaped my certain fate, pp.136–42, 169–76. One of the many delights of this masterpiece is the way that scholarly footnotes often take over, like Flann O’Brien‘s arcane annotations on de Selby in The third policeman.