The Accidental Book: Distractions of a Touring Comedian – Interview with Al Murray

The life of a touring comedian is a uniquely pressured and privileged thing; to have tickets bearing your name bought by people who hand to you an evening of their lives, and ask you to fill it with laughter: Hwoo. I have worked and toured with comedians. I should have remembered that to ask them anything when they’re nearing the end of a tour is as likely to invoke a torrent of existential woe as it is a massive yawn. It is certainly naive to whimsically ask them what life is ‘all about’ as an opening gambit.

Al Murray, creator and purveyor of quality pub landlord alter-ego of the same name, gamely replied to my blithe tone, (no doubt as annoying as finding a skidmark in your hotel bed): “What’s what all about? I barely know what day it is any more – we’ve been touring since this time last year pretty much and I feel like I’m living in a great big rolling present with no end in sight. And what’s that all about?”

I thought of other comedians who – though they know they are lucky to be doing it at all – after a long stretch on the road, with homogenised hotels and the quiet inner-mania that comes with hundreds of people expecting you to be at your best every night, inevitably reach the stage when they just want to go home and sleep in their own bed.

I asked Al what helps.

“Good food. And the fact that the audiences are nice: it remains an ongoing daily surprise that people want to come and see me.”

Even after years of playing to packed houses, a state of refreshed disbelief characterises most working comedians. Beneath the skill and success is always the novice receiving his first laugh. (Unless you turn into a total nob. And lordy there’s a few of those about too.)

What does a comedian do at the end of a long tour, once ensconced in the comforts of home? Sleep? Scratch his balls? Al, it would seem, attempted slothdom but failed miserably.

“I’d given myself six weeks off at the start of last year, fully intending to do nothing at all after a year on the road, and a couple of days in I got bored, sat down and started writing some of the ideas that then turned into the book. I got about 35,000 words done, took it to a publisher who then – horror of horrors – wanted me to actually finish the damned thing. Writing is hard because unlike stand up you can’t tweak it night after night, you have to sign off on it and watch it go out into the world to haunt you. Or worse still be completely ignored.”

I doubted it would be ignored, but wondered if success in other realms was a blessing or a curse in a comedian’s literary sidestep.

“It opens doors, but also warps expectation of how a book might perform. But as this book is written from my point of view, not the Pub Landlord’s (like the last 3 books) it at least has the advantage of novelty.”

I pictured Al daintily tapping away at some high spec Apple product, and then – thinking of another writer in his family – imagined it, like a romantic wanker, all falling away into black and white – the screen replaced by quill and ink, as writers of yore would have been tasked to write their tomes. I nudged him to divulge.
“You mean the Thackeray thing: he’s my great great great grandfather. As a youngster all that did was guarantee that I wasn’t going to read his books, which is a shame as Vanity Fair is brilliant. But I never felt a weight of expectation or anything.”

Not many people can boast – nor lament in moments of reduced self-assurance – names of great note in their lineage. Al is neither abashed nor bolstered by it. Even with literary and military history peppering his family, and his own success, he almost swats it away. A reductive instinct perhaps further micro-evidenced by reducing his full name to Al, about as short and fuss-free a name as you can get without being called ‘Oi’. I asked him what’s in a name, if anything.

“I love the idea of nominative determinism – that your name somehow sets your fate. And there can’t be that many plumbers called Tarquin.”

I pondered. Nope. Never had my pipes tended by a Tarquin.

Knowing there must be some level of choice in a constant circuitous touring of the nation’s larger venues, I asked Al what made him keep coming back to Southend.

“The Cliffs is a rarity for doing stand up – it’s a big room where you can hold everyone’s attention. Southend crowds are no-nonsense and one night there was a bloke at the front whose name was Cliff. What else could you ask for?”

Al will be playing the Cliffs Pavilion with his new show The Only Way Is Epic on Saturday 29th & Sunday 30th June. His book – a memoir about his love of history – will be out in the autumn.

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33: Asteroids & Bikes

Age is a funny thing isn’t it. Our lives divvied up into manageable sections – how long we’ve lived, how long – deduced hopefully from averages – we might expect to live yet. The maths of our being human. Numbers. Things we made up to make more sense of the world. How did we first come to count things – did some lovely fool in a cave fall in love with the stars and try to count them, and in quantifying them, own them?

I turned 33 last week, and somewhere amid all the internal din, the silent fuss of getting older, the cell-rooted panic specific to women in their thirties that their Fallopian tubes might clamp shut before they get around to thinking about whether they want to use their lady bits as a hotel for foetuses, somewhere in the middle of all that, (and present-opening and beer and more food than is medically advised), I realised: BEING IN YOUR THIRTIES FRICKIN ROCKS.

Obviously it has its setbacks. There’s a bit of prep that goes into a birthday in your thirties. You have to dye your hair the day before for a start (there’s nothing so tragic as people noticing your grey hairs as you blow out your candles). You have to consider everyone else’s lives in your celebrating; where is best to go for kids, what can everyone afford, who knows and likes whom, what happens if it rains, what happens if an asteroid in the park wipes out the scotch eggs, how much should you drink if you want to write that press release/spring-clean/still be alive the next day. It’s not simply a case of getting a bit older – there’s admin to fun in your thirties.

But there’s also a delicious freedom. You know what you want; you set about with all your gathered skills to pragmatically achieve it; you put up with less bull-turd from twazzocks. YOU ARE MIGHTY. (And you’re still pretty. Honest. Prettier, even. Defo. Promise.)

I did a few things that made me feel ‘pretty darn rad’. I sacked off a casting for a part in something because I simply thought “No. I don’t want you and I shall not waste my time.” (definite progress from my 20s), I cut my own hair (a friend taught me the highly addictive ponytail technique and I have subsequently lost seven inches), and I got a new bike. My mummy got me one. It’s purple and awesome.

Now, I haven’t had a bike since Helen Fulton borrowed mine in 1994 to go round to Leanne’s to have an argument and it got ‘stolen’ (Don’t ask. It’s still very raw.) so this wasn’t simply a case of replacing tired mechanics for new. This was serious stuff. This was childhood revisited. This was rebirth, with wheels. This was…clumsy, and not very pretty.

There is a blissful solitude in whizzing (okay – wobbling) along the pavement on a new bike, at any age. For a portion of those self-propelled moments you will always be the kid you were, set off down the road for the first time without the stabilisers on. You are alone in a scary beautiful world. Perhaps that is one of the first and truest existential moments we have. To feel it again after years of not having a bike is very strange.

But I stayed upright. I did. I might have flashed my knickers and I might have looked a bit of a nob but for a few moments down the road I was all ages all at once, and I felt happy with where I’d been, where I was, and how I’d got there. My thirties. My lessons, my strength, my gathered love; my years cast up like stars above me.

And then I went to the pub.

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The Comfort of Strangers

So. I was going to write about silicon spatulas, or how Helen Mirren rocks, or how I am addicted to my new poster-making app; I wanted something light to counter-balance my rather serious column last week.

But I can’t write about those things. Something is tugging my brain away from all those things. It won’t settle on them. Those are not my real thoughts, so I shan’t write them.

For those of you who didn’t read last week’s column, it was about Stephen Fry, and my Dad, and bi-polar, and suicide, and how I reconcile myself to my own low moments. It was a breezy one, I’ll confess. Look it up if you fancy a hoot.

I wrote it, certainly not as a throwaway piece, naturally, but as a small high-five of solidarity with Stephen, and a snapshot of my thoughts that morning circa my column deadline; wended that way by the news. I had absolutely no idea that it would be spread so widely by its readers on Twitter and Facebook, retweeted and shared by so many, that people would actively look me up and write to me, at such great length, so candidly, so beautifully.

Having spent the last week reading and responding to so many messages it’s easy to be tempted to think that I am suddenly more ‘well known’; that my writing career is perhaps building. But none of it is to do with who I am, how I wrote the piece, which personal things I chose to touch briefly upon, or even if it was any good. It’s because I wrote it at all.

People are desperate to feel like there are people who are in a similar situation to them, that people understand. Bi-polar, suicide, darkness, loss. People who need to send their thoughts elsewhere, fire them out of their own lives like lit matches, hoping they will catch on something or be extinguished forever. People want to talk. People need to talk. Some people need to talk right now, because they are in the midst of a low that is scaring them, from which they can see no way out. They wrote to me, a total stranger.

I began to have the tiniest tiniest glimpse of what Stephen Fry, with his incomparably massive profile, must be recipient of, all the time. No wonder he feels duty bound to speak out. You begin to feel a bond with these people. You want to make it better. It has made me resolve to finish the book I’ve almost finished and to look into self-publishing because I think it deals with stuff some people clearly want to read; even (to my greatest fear), if I find in the bearpit of publishing that I am not a ‘proper writer’. It might only be a small thing, my words, but now I know that what people most respond to is not craft, but honesty. That is where they get their comfort.

Yesterday was Father’s Day. It was also my birthday. It’s normally a strange few days, the day of Dads always circling around my ‘yay!’ day like a sad crow. He is not here anymore. I don’t get excited about my birthday anymore, sometimes because 33 is starting to feel a bit grown up for my liking, sometimes because of the sad irony of the tandem events, but mostly because I just miss the old bugger.

But this week I feel like I have new friends, friends whom I have never met nor am likely to meet – but they’re all out there, being strong, some of them not knowing that that makes them more amazing than they know, and so the pint I would normally raise to Dad was raised to them.

For Sadie’s uncut columns go to http://www.sadiehasler.wordpress.com

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Bi-Polar Lives: My Dad & Stephen Fry

Last week, in a podcast with lovely comedian Richard Herring, Stephen Fry felt comfortable enough to speak with further candour about his ‘bi-polar life’. Confessing that he had only last year attempted suicide, he went a little further than he has previously done, giving us another intimate instalment of his condition – a duty he takes seriously as the president of charity Mind. It was shocking to hear of such an act, but perhaps more so of such recency; you always naively hope, despite his frankness about his lows, that he has conquered the demons since his famous breakdown of 1995, which saw him walking out of a West-End play to sail for Belgium, (as good a place for dark thoughts as any).

It is something I remember vaguely from the news while I was staying at my Dad’s bungalow in North Wales. I naturally thought it was sad, but it didn’t touch me then as much as it touches me now.

My Dad had bi-polar. At least that was the label that was given to him and which best-fit, which is a scientific salve to me now in the constant puzzle-solving that comes from losing someone you love to suicide. The cold hard facts become a kindness alongside the searing cruelty of too many questions.

When I was 23 my Dad hanged himself, a method he turned to after superficial attempts with pills and razor blades failed. He was found in a doorway with headphones on. Cat Stevens in the CD player. I trawl those lyrics even now, a decade on, for a satisfying goodbye note. Coincidentally, the last place he travelled to was Belgium, a couple of months before. He went on a recuperative day trip with a coach-load of people he had been with in a local mental hospital; a charity event in which I am surprised but glad his lofty pride allowed him to participate. What did he think as he walked around Bruges? Did he know? Was he saying goodbye to the world?

Dad had always struggled with dark thoughts. He was found by his mother with his head in a gas oven aged 13. He considered (and threatened, and perhaps attempted) it many times after that. He experienced the ‘massive highs and miserable lows’ that Stephen has described. He had the characteristic extravagance that is common to manic depressives, resulting in a lifelong dance with crippling and often criminally fraudulent debt. He was a plotter, a calculator, a control freak. At times in his life he was alcoholic, manipulative, violent, and to some pretty damn evil. He was also charming, vibrant, cheeky, eloquent, highly intelligent, witty, and would give you the shirt off his back. He once anonymously paid off my best friend’s overdraft, he once sat with a very troubled man for hours talking him out of going and indiscriminately shooting people. He was adored, dreaded, loved, feared, tolerated, yearned for, and immeasurably grieved for. His funeral book bore thanks from people for the countless kind things he had done, and for being the reason one old friend was still on this earth himself. He was celebrated for his joyfulness. The service was moved, to our surprise, from the small chapel to the big chapel because so many people turned up to pay their respects. He was all things. I was always – even later, in the more difficult times – so proud of him being my Dad, or Papa as he liked to be called, the twee bugger. It still rankles my gut that he never gave medication a chance. I think he was afraid of losing control; of his sharp mind being blunted; of his pursuers catching up with him; of, dare I say, prison.

In 2003, aged 57, he ‘finally went and did it’. Those were the words poor Mum had to use to tell us; the words of no surprise. In October it will be ten years. I cannot begin to describe in one column the various landscapes of my mind in those ten years.

I met Stephen once, in the make-up room at ITV while I was watching a dear friend get ready for a QI record. He was charm personified, said hello like I was a favourite niece though he had no idea who I was, and I watched him being powdered quietly from the corner. Here was the nation’s darling, but for me he was so much more. He was all the things I loved about my father, still walking around, alive. The gentle poshness, the brilliant articulacy, the bright and beautiful mind, the dapper jackets and coloured socks peeking out. The aura that life, perversely, is wonderful.

Seeing Stephen Fry didn’t anger me that Dad had not had a similar fortitude to stick around – I’ve never felt that anger – instead it brought him alive again; shook out the good things from the tight bundle I carry around. It momentarily lightened bi-polar – the ever-present elephant (black dog, tiger, mammoth) in the room. He was still here. Hello Stephen Fry. I wanted to hold him. (But I’m ruddy glad I didn’t. He would have thought me very odd, and no one wants Stephen Fry to shake his head in disappointment at them, do they?)

Bi-polar. It’s such a strange beast to understand. I won’t fathom it here. So mysterious a thing is it that my Mum, Dad’s best friend for many years, isn’t even sure that he had bi-polar rather than some other sort of personality disorder. There is scant ‘knowing’ with it. Certainly not for those who don’t have it.

And it is a constant question running alongside my own moods too. Only yesterday I had the shadow flit through in a moment of sadness; I could end it right now. Could. What a word. What a burden.

I don’t think I am bi-polar, at all. I would not insult its true sufferers by supposing my highs and lows are anywhere near theirs in scope. But having had suicide in your life ushers in the possibility of it, while at the same time taking it away. You fantasise about it, but you (think you) know you will never do it. As Stephen said, you picture the faces of those who love you. That prevents you. I think my lows, my hopelessness, have mainly been born out of a very long grief, but when it’s all suicide-tinged it’s sometimes hard to tell. I feel plagued by unknowable genetics, yet I sometimes conversely crave similarity to the man I lost because even his bad traits are better than none. I keep him alive however I can.

Stephen Fry helps.

Like many people I so admire him for his honesty, but am also more grateful for it than I can express. I borrow from him the sense I cannot always find; the lessons that my pain – at times renewed afresh – sometimes makes me forget. I love him, and thank him, and hug him in my mind for all the bleak moments that might yet come to him. And smile, with a smile that holds more than anyone will ever know, at his socks. His lovely, colourful, hopeful socks.

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The Humping Below

There’s only so long you can go listening to your neighbours humping without feeling a bit…awkward. It starts off well enough – delighted disbelief, a twinge of delicious guilt, a light smattering of applause perhaps – but then you become aware that you’re like a dirty ghost, an invisible advisor on the eiderdown; willing him to stop that fruitless thing he’s doing with his nose and mentally moving the remote control so it doesn’t disappear like last time. You shouldn’t get involved. People don’t like it. Especially if you’ve had to saw a hole in the floor to gee them on. The dust gets everywhere. (Everywhere.)

A mere week ago I naively thought the new couple downstairs might become friends, that we were only one cheery meeting in the porch away from being pals. A couple of chatettes away from exchanging spare keys and confessional tales over some ice-cold beers. That was as I heard them shooping boxes whimsically around the laminate floor. Their newness, the implied optimism of their arrival was charming. “Where shall we put the cutlery? In a drawer in the kitchen? Good idea, babe.” Cute. I pictured newlyweds with flushed cheeks. I wondered if I should bake them welcome cookies and tell them I’ve got their backs if they ever need an emergency Enid Blyton or a decade-old bag of odd socks.

It was only hours later that I thought that I might kill them if they didn’t immediately dismantle their too-immediately mantled surround sound; bang and olufsen their skulls in with my hardest shoe if they didn’t cease their repetitive playing of some moronic computer game (that sounded to me, from my second floor sound-vantage, like zombies racing each other around a bowl of rice crispies.)

Then the next morning they played me The Everly Brothers up through the floor while I had a bath and I thought I might have been a bit rash in visualising their sudden and gruesome deaths; that we might after all through the power of shared musical tastes make some long-lasting bonds.

Then their dog made me drop my eggs with its psychotic snarling from its slit beneath their door as I let myself in after shopping. I dimly remembered some old saying about not being able to make an omelette without first breaking eggs, and – realising it was of little use when the eggs are squelching around a Sainsbury’s bag and not a skillet – abandoned my ‘nevermind’ smile and once more wished them a bit of deathy harm.

Then I heard them talking gently about growing tomatoes through the louvre window while I had a wee and I softened at their humble dreams, at the vulnerability of all humans. I had a five minute Jean de Florette spell of whimsy as they poked around the patio.

Then they banged in some nails while I was trying to write and I hoped their nails would ping back out as they slept and their Jack Vettriano pictures would fall smack on their heads and that the resultant dents in their skulls would spell out words like ‘cock’ and ‘fuckwit forever’.

Then I told myself off for being horrible.

And then they started humping.

Now, as I type, I feel like I’m the ousted member of a dysfunctional 70s three-way – pushed out of the tryst to play the gooseberry in the next room; still tacky from my involvement. I hate the bad flat conversion sound-proofing for making me feel like an aural pervert. I hate the enforced intimacy of neighbours. I hate his morning phlegm-gargling and her loud phone conversations about shit I hate. I hate their door-shutting and ostentatious sneezing. I hate their proximity, their life choices; their proximity to my life choices. I hate their X Box and the fact humans ever evolved the opposable thumbs requisite to play it. I hate the fact that when I stand one day soon on their doorstep, all psyched up to tell them off, that they will probably be perfectly nice and I will probably say nothing.

That I’ll then trudge back upstairs to listen to them bumping around like blindfolded pandas tasked with artlessly saving their species. Like now. Ugh. They sound like the BeeGees playing squash. It’s about as erotic as…the BeeGees playing squash. Which isn’t all that hot when you actually picture it. Especially now that most of the BeeGees are dead.

My initial neighbourly visions of sharing hopes and dreams over beer are dwindling; the likelihood of us ever holidaying in a cottage in Cornwall close to zilch.

They are certainly not about to get any ruddy welcome cookies out of me. What will I eat while earwigging?

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