Sunday, 13 December 2015

The other Steve Palmers

I used to occasionally get emailed and asked to do things like mend Chris Moyles's radio studio. That's because an engineer shared the same name as me when we both worked at the BBC. I used to reply: "Well, I've got a toolbox under the stairs and I can take a look..."

There are several other Steve Palmers out there. Including the stress expert. But more of that particular namesake in a moment. 
On the left: Steve Palmer. And on their right, Steve Palmer
First though: a few of the Steve Palmers in my life. I was chased down the road at university by animal rights activists because a Steve Palmer was conducting experiments on little fluffy creatures. I tried to say it was a case of mistaken identity but anger can make people unreasonable. 

My dentist nearly performed root canal treatment on me when there was absolutely no need. Another Steve Palmer, though, was in agony. And the day I was writing this I had a mystery call asking for Councillor Steve Palmer from somewhere in the Scunthorpe area.

The picture above shows Steve Palmer and Steve Palmer, together at an event held by the charity where I’m a trustee. Steve tells me that we have a namesake making life safe for people in Stockport.

And when I was at BBC London, the sports journalists thought it was hilarious to get me to read out the Queen's Park Rangers team news on a Friday, because the club had a striker with my name. 

But it’s the stress expert that I most remember. Part of the BBC job was to ring up guests and tempt them onto radio shows, to speak in response to an item in the news. This is how the conversation went with Dr Steve Palmer’s personal assistant:

Me: “Hello. I’m calling from the BBC. We’d like to ask Dr Steve Palmer onto our show to talk about an item in the news on stress.”

PA: “That sounds interesting. He is in today and I’ll try and put you through. Can I say who’s calling please?”

Me: “I’m so glad you asked me that...”

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Leopard skin, sneakers and great pop songs

So there I was sweating in the Camden Palace moshpit, dancing to someone whose name is Mahlathini Nezintombi Zomgqashiyo. Oh, and he groaned. So far, so obscure. But it’s one of the top five gigs I’ve ever been to. It was 1989. And this morning I realised that I feel so grateful that I got to see this band. 
Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens
Obscure? I’m here to tell you that Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were totally funky and danceable, with wonderful, joyful pop songs.

Try this one for size: Melodi Yala 

They were one of the first bands introduced to me by Charlie Gillett (see previous blog). If Paul Simon encouraged the world to listen to South African music - and I still love Graceland - then a much bigger influence for me were Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and other bands.

If you don't know where to start, try the three Indestructible beat of Soweto albums. Here's a link to information about volume one. Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens featured heavily on these albums. 

It was the late 80s and all this was being played against a backdrop of Apartheid coming to and end. Some preferred the bullet. These musicians preferred the penny-whistle. Oh, and the guitar. Because these were really accessible pop songs. And here's my Spotify 'best of' playlist.

But I maintain that Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were nothing without each other. Here was a strange man groaning away wearing a chief's regalia on stage – a leopard skin over his chest, fur armlets and leggings, a skirt of animal tails and beads around his head; with three women who danced around in huge red circular Zulu hats, skirts of leather and beadwork, leotards and sneakers. 

And when Mahlathini died in 1999, that synergy died too. I'm sure the Queens are amazing on their own and they still tour. 

It's just that I got to see the Real McCoy. I'll never forget being at that gig, staggered that so many other people loved them, and were singing along: "This music is produced from the same pot, the same pot. Everybody knows". 

The style of music is called Mbaqanga. But if you're not bothered about that, then at least do give them a go. And I hope you, like me, start tapping your toes and feeling good the moment their songs start. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Subbuteo - Milan in my bedroom

My eldest loves to Xbox; my youngest his iPad.

I had it worse. Forty years ago, I became completely obsessed with Subbuteo.

1970s Subbuteo, with the unrealistic nets, balls and players
Some great goals flew in; some amazing saves were made; and the woodwork (well, plastic) was pinged by the ball on many occasions. 

But did I take this all too far? Well the conditions had to be just right. The ball was as tall as the players, so I remember buying a smaller ball to make it more realistic. Because obviously, people standing on plastic moulds with their arms dangling down by their sides; well, that was really realistic, wasn't it? 

That wasn't the manufacturers' fault. But what was inexcusable was adding an extra line a few centimetres from the penalty box. You could only shoot from within this line. That wasn't realistic at all. 

However, the first Subbuteo sets came onto the market in 1947, so my expectation of 'reality' has to be placed in the context of a post-war rationale. No flashy long-range shots allowed. Austerity football. And the line stuck. You can see why: a kick from a player had power. I could have shot from my sister's room and it would have gone all the way in. 

And talking about my sister, I was beside myself when she kneeled on my goalpost. And then ecstatic when I realised that she'd clipped of the bottom of the post and now the goals were flush with the ground; just like real goalposts. So I sawed off the bottom bits of the other goal. I also had to have the nets drape down, not taut like the manufacturers made them. What did they know? I had the San Siro stadium, Milan, in my bedroom. The ball nestled in the net beautifully when it flew in. 

It was all about realism. Occasionally I'd do like my sis and inadvertently kneel on a player. No problem. I had glue. But, once dried, the players would invariably sink into the glue and end up being much shorter than the other players. Again; no problem. One such sinkee was in claret and blue strip. So, he was the diminutive Billy Bonds for West Ham and the tiny Brian Little for Aston Villa.

And I have to admit to sometimes dragging the ball, rather than flicking it. I enjoyed cheating, with no one judging me. 

Because the thing is, I can hardly remember playing Subbuteo with anyone else. No; this was a solitary activity. I played entire tournaments, rigged games so that my preferred team would win and put real snow on the pitch when it snowed outside (it was a good excuse to use the orange ball). Always with commentary. From me. I was totally on my own. 

I remember my dad having a quiet word with me in about 1978, suggesting that I'd probably become a bit too old for this. And I listened to him. But I'll never regret my obsession - or the broken plastic. Now - where's the electronic device? 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

My failed stand-up comedy career

What Tinky Winky taught me about audiences with a smoking gun
© Steve Palmer 2015

Flyer from 1994 - Includes Dave Thompson and yours truly
The Bearcat Club in Twickenham was the second worse place you could perform as an aspiring stand-up twenty years ago. The club’s website says that these days it’s one of London’s best-loved comedy venues. Not to me it isn’t. It’s been gut-wrenching even looking the site up. I never want to go there again. I’ve no idea if it’s still the second-worst one to play or whether Up the Creek in Greenwich still has that dubious honour.

The Bearcat. Back in the 90s, they had professional hecklers, who sat in the front row. These people said things to the comedians that the audience behind them couldn’t hear. But the performers could. The hecklers got the volume just right.

It was terrifying.

So. The open spot. Try-out. Open mic. The bit in the show where newly-starting-up comedians got their five minutes. Like an apprentice gladiator being thrown to the lions, it was rarely a level playing field. If you pay £30 to go and see Michael Mcintyre, you’re going to want to enjoy it, including to justify the expense. And I hope you do. However, as the try-out in a line-up of several comedians, you’re fair game.

The night I did the Bearcat, Dominic Holland, who I’d spoken to a couple of times at gigs and who was very encouraging and helpful, went on stage and stormed it. If you stormed the Bearcat you were a professional comedian who was not only funny, but who also knew how to control an audience. Holland had them eating out of the palms of his hands; and cheering from the rafters.

Then it was my turn.

No. I don’t really want to talk about it. Except I will. A bit. I wasn’t funny. The audience humiliated me in a way that I couldn’t have ever imagined. I’d much rather see my trousers fall off in Piccadilly Circus. I was, of course, relieved to get off. They’d had their pound of flesh. I’m almost in tears writing about it.

So: why? Why did I do this awful thing? A hobby as a stand-up comedian on the try-out circuit? Well; it all started when loads of people fell off a stage during a student play.

Stand up and be counted

Bradford University. 1983. A musical, which was a tribute to Scott of the Antarctic, with the bizarre but perhaps imaginative title of ‘Scott bears all in polar regions.’ For some reason, the producer thought I was funny and got me to do five minutes of stand-up. OK, I was billed as ‘The worst comedian in the world’ but I could hardly sue under the Trade Descriptions Act. 

Rehearsals went OK. We were due to perform in the Communal Building; what everyone called the Commie.

Ah, the Commie. Fond memories of appropriating barrels that were destined for the Beer Festival; then rolling them down a grassy verge that Bradford students will know well – it starts at the library and Shearbridge Green / Bradford Halls, and swoops down towards the Commie. The barrel-rolling, and other larks, were played-out with my friend Ian.

Ian couldn't resist, every time he was in the vicinity of a phone, picking it up and shouting: "Get me the White House. Brezhnev's still dead." The reference to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, recently deceased, would get me laughing every time.

Ian and I got to introduce John Cooper Clarke, the poet. Not this time at the Commie. This time in the Great Hall, no less. The story goes that we were on stage in front of 2,000 people and were enjoying getting ‘air time’. All we had to do was to say a few words to introduce the great punk wordsmith. We stretched the concept of ‘a few words’ as far as we could, hogging the limelight. We just talked and talked to the audience. Because we could. It was great. 

Apparently Clarke then said: “It looks like I’m already x!*!x well on.” And then started making his way onto the Great Horton Road. He was dragged back. We were dragged off. Short of getting one of those curly sticks and yanking us from the stage, we were dispatched to the sidelines.

The social secretary was a guy called Neil Smith. He was always suspicious of me and Ian. With good reason. In 2013 I discovered him online and he was very generous, and funny; and he was so forgiving about our misadventures from the 1980s. Because Ian and I were right wind-up merchants. I had to break the news to Neil that Ian had died in 2006.

Old friend

Ian was killed on his motorbike and I saw him on too few occasions between the end of university and the day he died. Ian would have been my consultant for this chapter. He didn’t mind being embarrassed; he stood for university president on the ‘criminally insane’ ticket. And nearly won. He wound up the political student types. I said in an article I wrote for the BBC Bradford / West Yorkshire website: “Ian’s love of life and ‘no strings attached’ approach to friendship liberated me.”

At the funeral, the crematorium building was packed with people and they needed to use both rooms. I obviously went to the ‘overflow’ room, not being close family or having any pretence to being a regular friend to Ian any more. Then: “First up to remember Ian is his friend from Bradford, Steve.” 

I had to run at breakneck speed around to the main crematorium area where the service was being held, as the truth dawned that I was to be the first to speak. Ian was having the last laugh on me. So I arrived, breathless, taking gulps of air as I was about to start talking.

And there was Karen, his wife; and his three young boys. And his extended family. And loads of friends. And I’d come prepared to talk about how Ian and I used to muck about and treat life frivolously. A bit risky, I suppose, being first up to speak. But then I thought: “Sod it. It’s what he would have wanted.” This might have been deeply embarrassing but I went for it and talked about how we ran amok on campus. 

Stupid things like going into the Union shop and pretending to get the wrong end of the stick. We asked for onions. Silly things like organising a speed-eat-all-you-can halls of residence dinner. Ian did it in four minutes, 20 seconds. 

Childish things like jumping over the postbox on the Great Horton Road that was still, when I was last there, slightly at an angle like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then I looked up and wondered if they were about to all chase me out of the crematorium. 

But folks at the funeral were appreciative, because they all knew what Ian was like. Of course, there were many more, important speeches, but I was glad I was able to celebrate Ian’s zany approach to life. 

Ian. Thank you. As your best man, Simon, said on the day we said goodbye to you: “Shine on you crazy diamond.”

Staged disaster

Anyway; back to the Commie. I was playing the part of the failed comic in the Antarctic romp. And I was a minute into my routine (OK, perhaps it’s best to describe it as a ‘bunch of terrible jokes’) when I heard an almighty smashing sound behind me.

The Commie could be used for discos, gigs and shows. And a raised performing area was assembled for the latter two. Actually, this ‘stage’ was really just a bunch of glorified and rickety trestle tables that constituted a performance area. On this occasion, as I stood there, behind me some hastily-erected polar scenery was swaying. Then the stage buckled and the entire cast – there were loads of extras – fell about four feet onto the floor. One guy broke his leg.

The audience burst out laughing, not knowing how gruesome it all was back there, because the falling scenery shielded them from sight of the full carnage. But this was my moment. Sensing just the right amount of pregnant pause, I grabbed the microphone in its stand and said: “Well, you can laugh.” 

Appalling. What a wasted opportunity to get a bona fide laugh. But I couldn’t think of anything else in the heat of the moment. It got a moderate chuckle. Yeah. Thanks. 

Somehow, though, my appearance as a stand-up was encouraged. That summer we took some theatre productions to the Edinburgh Festival, and ‘Gandhi: The Panto’ was going particularly badly. We were filmed for Joan Bakewell’s ‘Pick of the Fringe’ on BBC2 and so my first ever TV appearance as an artiste was as an extra, dressed in a dhoti, walking bearfoot in the streets of Edinburgh. 

But the same guy who cast me in the role of comedian in the Antarctic escapade suggested that I repeat the exercise in Edinburgh to ‘save the show’. Talk about high expectations. So, I did a routine and I can’t remember if it was OK or not. Actually, I was probably crap.

Not as crap perhaps as when, back in the Commie, we performed ‘Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street’. As the policeman, I had to shoot Sweeney, played by a guy called Alex. The gun wouldn’t go off – there was a firearm malfunction - and instead I had to stab poor Alex with the broken gun, much to the delight of the audience, who fell apart. So did I…

And then I forgot all about stand-up. And I left university…and grew up a bit.

Mid Nineties

But the urge returned. I had been in a career job for a few years and I was just about to get married, so perhaps I was having a 30-something ‘life crisis’. Working in the travel industry had its benefits, but day-to-day on the desks could be dull. And I started thinking of trying to do stand-up again. 

A friend, who hadn’t just messed about with theatre in Bradford like I did, but who went on to be a theatrical big-wig, was down in London. She encouraged me to do something about the comedy bug. It was 1992.

A few months came and went and I did nothing about it. Until my stag do. We were in a pub in Crouch End. I knew that they had comedy in the basement every Saturday night but this was the last thing on my mind as I sat there with devil horns on, with writing across my forehead in lipstick and with party streamers dangling down. And I was wearing a plastic fireman’s helmet. 

Suddenly, at about 10.55 pm, as the comedy evening downstairs was coming to an end, I decided it would be a good idea to go down there. In disbelief, my stag friends followed me, and arrived in time to see me grab the microphone from the compere, who was winding up the evening’s entertainment. I pushed him to one side. And I told a joke from hell. Remember; I was near the end of my stag do and the joke sort of mumbled out. A drunken spilling forth of an inaudible punchline. 

But it had an effect on me.

Typing this, I’m sitting in a bar not far from the venue where this happened, reminiscing about my first ever gig. It was a crazy, wild and impetus thing to do and the worrying thing is, it wasn’t the least embarrassing or awkward at all. At that point I had no fear of being on stage. 

Then I started doing stand-up properly. Oh dear...

Tinky Winky’s school of comedy

Mrs Steve had seen an article in the Observer about a stand-up class at Jackson’s Lane Community Centre in Highgate. She wishes she hadn’t. I enrolled. We were lucky to have, as our tutors, the likes of Andy Parsons (a regular these days on Mock the Week), John Hegley the poet, and Dave Thompson. The Dave Thompson who also doubled-up as Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies. 

The ‘students’ all tried out our material in front of each other. Wow; the egos in that room. We were taught microphone technique – it’s very important. You don’t want to fumble before an expectant (or non-expectant) audience. We all encouraged each other. It was like therapy. But, ultimately we were on our own, as our own agents, to book our own gigs and to try to make audiences laugh.

The thing is that the first time I did a gig for real I was funny. It was actually at the same venue as the comedy course – Jackson’s Lane. There were about 15 people in the audience but they all laughed. I was terrified. But, according to family, that petrified look apparently makes me come across as funny. So I thought my golden new career was about to take off. All I had to do before a gig was to work myself into a frenzy of fear; and then shit myself. 

But once I started getting into the zone and trying to take on an audience, it was like I became a machine and so I lost that look of terror. And, on top of that, my usual outward-going personality seemed to abandon me on stage as well. After that first gig, I sort of lost my mojo and never recovered it. So my success didn’t last long! Psychologists would have a field day. Anyway, after that, I can’t say I ever really enjoyed myself as a comedian. Apart from one gig. But read on…

I’ve calculated that between the early summer of 1993 and January 1995 I did about 200 gigs. This was on top of the day job. One hundred and fifty shows went OK. Pretty non-descript. I even humiliated a heckler once. Result. Of the remaining fifty, forty were pretty disastrous. That leaves ten. 

About five were abysmal and about four were so bad that I find it totally awkward and humiliating writing this. This included the Bearcat Club.

Do the maths and you’ll see there’s one gig left. More of that in a moment. Because that was good. That was very good.

First though, some lowlights from those bad gigs: I was ignored by a bunch of students in Harrow, who snogged each other through my act. Mrs Steve was there and when I came off stage, she was so upset she had to be consoled by a very nice Rhona Cameron. I asked my sister to a gig once and I was appalling. I won’t get that time back again. 

My try-out slot at the Comedy Store was everything it shouldn’t be. Lee Evans came into the changing room and was very encouraging, but it didn’t help me. I was shocking and the compere rubbed salt in the wound, afterwards coming up to me and telling me that he thought I was terrible. I’ve harboured a fantasy that somehow he was trying to beat me down and that it was his way of waving off the talented up-and-coming opposition. But now I think it was because I was just crap and because he was just a nasty person. Name withheld.  

If the audience were revolting and you did badly, at least you could say: “Tough crowd.” But once I drove to somewhere in Surrey and they were lovely. And I was terrible. The audience were so kind that they were actually embarrassed for me. I found that experience much worse than being booed off. I also drove to Brighton and the gig was going OK with the biggest crowd I’d ever played in front of. But one section only of the crowd really turned on me and I’d had enough. So I shouted at them and stormed off, despite that section being in a minority. I knew in my heart, though, that the whole venture was coming to an end.

But there were some amazing evenings. A guy singing “Only You” whilst wearing welding goggles; an American comedian shouting, in reference to the London Underground safety messages: “Mind the gap. YOU mind the gap.” However, I never saw the farting comedian, Napoleon Blown Apart, and that’s a major regret.

And one hot summer night Mrs Steve joined me for moral support at this pub in central London. The pub, like many others at the time, used its upstairs room as a comedy venue. But this one was different. It billed itself as London's only smoke-free comedy spot. This wasn't a lie; every other venue was really smoky. Your clothes always stunk after a gig. Now, at the time, lots of people liked smoking, and so no one came to this particular gig. The audience no-showed. I don't think the organiser even bothered to turn up. But another performer did.

This other comedian sat outside the pub with me and Mrs Steve, waiting and waiting. We had a pleasant enough chat but he was affecting lots of different accents (comedians are often 'in character'). Then I realised that his hair was skew-whiff, and that in fact he was wearing a toupée. In the end, this up-and-coming comic ripped the rug off and threw it on the wooden table for comedy effect. In his normal, London voice he proclaimed: "I've had enough of this." He said goodbye and walked down the road, proudly bare-headed. 

That performer was Matt Lucas and he’s gone on to bigger things. Well, that wasn’t difficult; there was no one there. But you know what I mean. 

What was in my act? I really just told crap jokes and didn’t feel that I ever had a chance to work on a persona, as there was always another gig coming up shortly – so I wrote more crap jokes, that weren’t funny. These days of course, I live with a son with a learning disability and I’ve got a blog and book about it to draw on for material. But I wouldn’t want to do it now. Now perhaps I’ve got the material but not the desire. Twenty years ago I had the opposite. Damn. 

I’ll tell you about that great gig in a moment, I promise. The chapter’s almost over. The punchline’s coming. But first, to a fantastic evening when I got gonged off after about 40 seconds. Yes. It was great. The Gong Club was at least what it said on the tin. When the crowd had had enough of a comedian, they went “woooooooo” until a crescendo moment forced the Gongmeister to rattle that gong. I had my own beautiful gong moment – it really was quite liberating – and then foxed the audience afterwards by telling them that I loved them and by doing an encore. How did the promoter let that happen?

But what the promoter did was to put the gong victims up in the first half and then have an established comedian do a set in the second. That night, Harry Hill was on, and he was so kind and generous to all the comedians. He turned up in his comedy bubble car and we all had a really good chat in the waiting / changing / shit-yourself room. A fond memory and something most people don’t get to do.

Highbury high jinks

So. To that night. I was set to do the Hen and Chickens in Highbury and Islington and my desire to continue this comedy hobby was seriously waning. So I felt more relaxed about the whole thing. And remember Tinky Winky? That’s Dave, who had that other career as a Teletubby, and who was also one of my comedy teachers. I once spent a great afternoon in his flat, with another new comedian; we organised for Dave to give us a private titter tutorial.

Dave was great company and he also gave us his view of what stand-up really is. Yes, you have to be funny but, crucially, you have to be able to control a crowd, like Dominic Holland did at the Bearcat. And Dave went further. He talked about the ‘loaded gun’. The idea is that a crowd want blood. And they’ll let the gun off if they smell that blood. So, Dave reckoned, even the most established comics can struggle if they are on at the wrong time in the running order.

It was, at the time, a cut-throat world and sometimes a bit harsh, and dare I say it, nasty for the sake of being nasty. It was you against the world. Dave Thompson advises that some people who run comedy venues are: "Proxy comedians”.  ’ve spoken to him recently and he tells me: “If you succeed, they suck up to you and bathe in your status. If you fail, they play power trips with you. They like to see comedians humiliated at their venue. They feel it raises their status to see someone, who tries to be creative, lose status publicly. The audience picks up on this vibe, and the gun in the room is manifested.”

I was once approached after a gig by a couple who said they thought I was funny, but that because everyone around them was out to get me, they felt they couldn’t laugh. They said that there was a ‘comedy fascism’. They came up to me specially to say this and it’s perhaps one of the kindest things any stranger has ever done for me. Imagine that happening.

And, that night at the Hen and Chickens, in October 1994, it was carnage. Relatively established comedians were close to getting bottles chucked in their direction, and the loaded gun was more like a gatling gun let off its moorings, with every comedian getting rudely booed off. About four of them in the first half, which didn’t last long. The audience were merciless.

And then it was my turn. First up after the break.

I tried a couple of jokes and got nowhere. But sometimes unexpected things happen in life. They didn’t boo me. They’d done their booing. I thought about what Dave had said and realised that the gun had gone off. It was now simply smoking. This was my chance. 

The day before, a man had broken into the lion enclosure at London zoo and was chewed to pieces. I said: “Sod it. This morning, on the tube, I wrote these jokes about the bloke breaking into the lion enclosure. Do you want to hear them?” I got giant appreciative cheers. They actually wanted to hear my crap jokes. And so I got a piece of paper out of my pocket and read these awful puns out. Jokes like: “Before they ate him, they had a pair of teeth”. Actually, that’s the only one I now remember. Aperitif. Get it? Well that audience did, and they laughed; so there.

I’m typing this on the same tube line where I wrote those jokes, about twenty years after the event. Fond memories. Because, at that gig in 1994, they practically carried me out on their shoulders. One guy asked when I was next playing. I tried to explain that if I’d had gone on earlier, I’d have been treated like the enemy within and he would have hated me. It was probably the moment when I realised that I definitely didn’t want to do this anymore, because Dave was right. 

Audience-control is important. And I don’t find that particularly exciting. But I enjoyed that one night.

The evening got better. After I was on, this act called Jimbo performed. Now, I’ve checked online and there appears to be at least two other comedians with the same name. But this is a story about the Jimbo I saw that night in 1994. Meticulously researched, this essay.

Jimbo never spoke. He always went to the microphone and went as if to speak, but always got distracted and that was his act. His mouth opened; nothing. Another attempt; again, nothing. He was often distracted by one of his props, which he examined in close detail. I’d seen him do this several times before, but on this particular evening it was hilarious. 

The audience, by now tamed to being mouse-like recipients of any comedy, loved it. If he’d have been on any earlier, they’d have swallowed him up.

Jimbo did the whole ‘I’ll speak in a moment’ routine; but then he took it one stage further. He flung open the back door fire exit, leaving his props on the floor, and then boarded a 73 bus. The audience were still laughing as he took off on the bus, and as he was clearly visible sitting on the upper deck.

Cassette carnage

About a year ago I took all the audio recordings I had of me doing stand-up and listened to them (in anguish). Then I then pulled the tape out of the cassettes, and placed all the bits in a bin outside Baker Street station. I kept one small recording, captured just after I’d started off as a comedian. The tapes had to go.

And all I’d say is that I feel sorry for comedians these days. You get to be heckled, not just whilst performing, but also after the show. Going onto the Bearcat’s website, I saw this on their ‘latest tweets’ feed: hi I really enjoyed your set last night at the @Viaductpub @bearcatquiz but I think you could've done jokes 5 & 12 better...

Funny ha-ha. And funny peculiar. And funny awkward. Bloody awkward. But what a night in the Hen and Chickens in October 1994.

Simon's Sudan

This is a shorter version of this blog

My friend Simon’s love of Africa in general is only eclipsed by his love of Sudan in particular. He just adores the place. 

Sudan: No third world disaster here 
Here are some facts that I looked up on the internet for you: Sudan was home to numerous ancient civilizations, has recently seen rampant ethnic strife and has been plagued by internal conflicts, including two civil wars and fighting in the Darfur region. 

Sudan has 4,725 kilometres of narrow-gauge, single-track railroads that serve the northern and central portions of the country. But, to put it frankly, travelling by train in Sudan can be erratic. And quite uncomfortable. 

But Simon tells me that he loves an article by fellow Sudanophile Iain Marshall, written in 1990. So, about 15 years before the rest of the world started blogging.  

Iain says: "The concept of transport is based on the principle of moving from A to B in Sudan. The comfort of the journey is of little importance. People overcome the hardships of such travel by a wonderful act of will. They simply ignore all the signs of pain and irritation. During the course of that journey I was treated regally by my fellow travellers. A handful of dates extended from the press of bodies; a house in a tiny Nubian village providing tea; countless offers of water from roadside houses.”

Iain also goes on to say: “The Sudanese proverb ‘Ar raffig gabl at tarig’ - travelling companions are more important than the journey itself - has rung resoundingly true on every trip I have ever made in Sudan.” Iain’s now made that 1990 essay into a blog.

Thousands of years ago, the area of north Sudan was extremely volcanic. And Simon was, one day, feeling pretty volcanic himself.

As I’m writing this I’m smiling because I saw Simon last night. Good timing because he was in London on a rare trip and we had a great catch-up with friends. He was in high spirits as he’d just been to his beloved Sudan. Of course we all reminded him of his story about the train…

On a moving Sudanese train, Simon opened the door to the loo on a speculative visit. A family was living in there. He really didn’t want to interrupt or ask them to move out - so that he could move his bowels. So he held on. Finally the train arrived in a station, where it was to remain for an indeterminate amount of time. That happens in Sudan.

It sat beside another train in the searing East African heat. That other train – a freight locomotive - had apparently been there for days. Days and days and days. With no toilet on the station, Simon was by now dancing around in agony and he had to grab this opportunity. He ran around the back of the second train, out of site; and pulled down his trousers. And just as relief started washing over his body, that second train started pulling out of the station, rather too astonishingly quickly for Sudanese rolling stock that had just been rusting on the rails for so long.

And so the passengers on Simon’s train got an eyeful. I bet even the family in the toilet turned their eyes away when they saw him perform the walk of shame across the tracks.  

Simon’s got a whole series of stories about his Sudanese travels. For instance, when he had to remain in a plane on the runway during a sandstorm. When the storm had abated and the passengers got off, his Sudan Airways 737 had been stripped of its livery and was a perfect, beautiful, silver, the paint ripped off by the swirling sands of East Africa.

All I know is that Simon carries with him, wherever he goes, things that bung you up. He apparently used some this February in the north of Sudan. Although the communal loo had a great view of an ancient temple, Simon says: “I popped two Imodium to avoid ever having to go in that bog whilst staying there!” 

And Simon only let me write all about him if I included this YouTube tribute to Sudan. No Third World disaster here. A lovely film with a strong message. 

Super Sudan. 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

"I'm a Val, I know." The record that exploded in my ears

Tonight I was listening to the excellent Round Table on Steve Lamacq’s show (Six Music) and I immediately turned it off. Why? Because I suddenly had a powerful memory of listening to the Radio One version of the show in 1982 and hearing something that moved me and has influenced me from that moment when Richard Skinner spun it on his record player. So tonight I located it on Spotify and listened again.

Back in 1982, the song exploded into my ears on 275/285 MW and I just had to hear a quality version, so I immediately went out and bought ‘Valley Girl’ by Moon Unit Zappa. Please have a listen now. It’s the most bizarre record I’ve ever heard. It still is, 33 years after that monumental moment on Round Table in ‘82. It’s a pastiche on a certain type of teenager who lived in the San Fernando Valley in California. “Gag me with a spoon. Gross. Grody. Grody to the max. Barf out. I am sure. Totally.”

The thing is, it opened up something in me. It was summer time and I was off to university in the autumn. I was open to anything that socked it to the man and I was very impressed with everything that Vivian Stanshall did. The wackier and more bizarre, the better. It was us eccentrics against the world. And I knew that when I turned up on campus, people would flock to me because I owned this ridiculous record.

Life is different to expectations though, isn’t it? I’m not sure I ever played it to anyone. But I’ve listened to it so, so many times. And Frank Zappa’s daughter, Moon Unit, apparently only sang the song so that she could get onto her dad’s tour and thus spend some time with her father. Moon Unit didn’t share my enthusiasm for bizarre things, after all.

But, listening on the bus just now, it sounds just as fresh, ridiculous and beautifully bizarre as it did in 1982.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The life of an expatriate child

A bumpy ride in childhood on the ground and in the air
(c) Steve Palmer 2015
Singapore in 1971
Wikipedia describes the ‘Jennings and Darbishire’ series as a collection of humorous novels of children's literature concerning the escapades of J.C.T. Jennings and C.E.J. Darbishire; schoolboys at Linbury Court preparatory school. 

But to me, they were evil.

When we were kids, my sister Chris and I went to boarding school. From 1971 to 1975 our parents lived in Singapore. Chris and I were in different schools in the UK and we only saw each other in the holidays. Not good. And I was encouraged, by the school, to read about Jennings and Darbishire, who were also in boarding school, but who featured in stories from the 1950s. So, it was even more draconian and depressing than the real thing.

And it was a strange childhood. We were a family of ‘expats’. Expatriates. Those that have gone to live abroad. As expats, we were members of the Tanglin Club. Opened in October 1865, its website says that for many years the Tanglin was one of the “pillars of social life in Singapore, for successful members of the European community.” This is embarrassing to think about now because in the 1970s we were segregated from Asian people. Not that any Chinese people wanted to go to the Tanglin Club, I’m sure.

These days we shop in Aldi and fly on Ryanair, but when I was eight until I was 12, I was a member of a club that wouldn’t have felt out-of-place in the British Empire. I’m sure there was even one of those hessian fans that gently wafted warm air around. Not that Chris and I cared. We were there for (a) the swimming pool and (b) the tuck shop.

But actually getting to Singapore. Well, that was another thing…

Wobbly journey

I still think it was challenging to expect your kids to get on a plane and fly out to Singapore when they were aged ten (Chris) and in my case, eight. But as an adult, I’ve had therapy. No; it was a challenge. Especially when no one had told me what airplane turbulence is. No one. Nobody. Not a jot of pre-flight information on that one. Nada.

The first time I ever went on a plane had a big effect on my future airline travel experiences.

So it was 1971. We flew to Singapore and the first leg was from London to Rome; and there was bad turbulence. I thought the plane was going to crash and shouted, really loudly, words to that effect. My sister was with me on that occasion and I think was so totally embarrassed about my reaction that she’s blocked it out of her memory. She says she can’t recall the incident. I can. “We’re going to crash and we’re all going to die!” A bit dramatic. I was eight. Oh; I’ve already said that.

Even now, I’m no good with turbulence. My brother-in-law Andrew has explained about different types of clouds and how turbulence doesn’t just happen when it is, per se, cloudy. But that incident prepared me for a life of what the family like to describe as me possessing ‘sweaty palms’, because my hands do get clammy for take-off.

There are some YouTube videos that can help - but they don’t help me. Although, Mrs Steve and I had a very frightening incident flying from Costa Rica to Houston – the plane was sent careering off course, twice, during ‘clear air turbulence’ – there were no clouds. People in front of me were all propelled towards the ceiling in one big Mexican wave. And, afterwards, part of me felt it was actually quite comforting. For all the times that I’d had irrational fears of turbulence, here was the occasion when my fears were correct. A stewardess broke her arm. It was the real deal. I felt justifiably terrified.

Isn’t it amazing what an incident at an early age can do to someone? And how it can mess with them forever and ever and ever…

Horror ship

Alton Towers. 1985. The day I discovered that I’m terrified of – no, scrub that – allergic to, pleasure rides. A day out with Girlfriend Steve (as was), plus her sister Ruth and Ruth’s then boyfriend (now husband) Andrew. Soon I was on a big dipper, being carried upside down and around and feeling my heart leave my mouth - and then getting suspended in the air. However, the thing about a big dipper is that you can at least have some concept of when the ride’s going to end. So in a way, the big dipper was nothing.

Because then we got on a ship. Yes; a ship that was a ‘pleasure ride’. This ship went back and forth, leaving you with a feeling of horrifying whole-body discombobulation. And not an end in sight. This time, my heart was hovering above this pirate ship, as if the evil spirit of a treasure island character was about to snatch it away. And I turned into an eight-year-old boy, screaming for my life at the enforced and totally unnecessary turbulence.

And Andrew thought it would be hilarious to turn round and tickle me under the neck and to, you know, keep reminding me of how terrifying it all was. This made it 100 times worse. I screamed and screamed – the ship went back and forth, back and forth – and then I screamed again. Actually, it was worse than turbulence. That pirate ship was a silly, stupid, ridiculous terror machine.

Anyway, after it stopped I felt particularly relieved, but then I felt queasy and then I had to have two weeks in bed; with vertigo. Never again. I’m shaking now thinking about it. The others had a lovely time and bought some candy floss.

I think I'd better leave right now...

In the summer of 1982 the Headmistress from my sister's school retired. The family were invited to the leaving do and it was chance to look back on our rather strange childhood of expatriate living and bumpy rides. 

But the do wasn’t our ‘thing’. There was a stage. Another dais if you like. It had potted plants, classic drapes and frilly lampshades. It was as if my Grandmother had kitted it out. I quite expected to see her 78 record player there. And there were three instruments: A cello; a piano; and a violin. My sister really hated one thing about her childhood: Her cello. She had to lug it everywhere. Mind you, it meant that she always got a lift everywhere from our parents, whereas Muggins here had to always get the bus.

So my sister hated the Headmistress’s event because it reminded her of a life and a cello she thought she’d left behind; and my Mum hated it because it was like an afternoon in my Grandmother’s flat, where the clock on the mantelpiece seemed to tick very loudly because we’d run out of things to say. Personally, I was just bored. And, anyway, this recital was only set to last an hour and a half.

Then, some perfectly charming and nice older ladies came onto the stage to play their instruments, with the Headmistress appreciatively sitting in the front row. It must have been members of the music department who were providing the entertainment.

Anyway, it started. All went well. But it reminded me of Hinge and Brackett. Hinge and Brackett, for those too young or too disinterested, were female impersonators. Wikipedia describes them as follows: “Dr. Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket were the stage personae of the musical performance and female impersonation artists, George Logan and Patrick Fyffe. Active in theatre, radio and television between 1972 and Fyffe's death in 2002, this comedic partnership entertained the public in the guise of two elderly eccentric spinsters, living genteel lives in the village of Stackton Tressel; and seemingly celebrating their former ‘careers’ on the provincial operatic stage.” Just Google them. Or don’t.

And then it happened. I leant over to my Mum and whispered: “They remind me of Hinge and Brackett.”

Mum giggled.

Chris laughed.

I giggled. It was infectious. Before we knew it we were stifling laughter, bodies shaking, tears running down our faces. All at the Headmistress’s leaving do. The woman who had given so much to this school and who was presumably appreciating the style and manner of her send-off, had, a few yards away from where she was sitting, a family of extremely ungrateful Palmers, by now shaking their shoulders and desperate for the show to end so that they could go outside and get the laughter out. And then we laughed more. And more. We laughed for most of the 90 minutes.

Have you ever been placed in a situation where, to laugh would be the most inappropriate thing? It was excruciating and funny. Excrutiatingly funny. And pretty awkward. So many emotions; so much value-for-money. We were waiting for it to end so we could go outside and laugh properly. But, of course, by the time we did, we couldn’t laugh any more.

Penny drops on the Tube

But, writing this in 2015, I’m on the Piccadilly Line and it’s hit me like a bolt from the blue what was really going on in that room. As a family, we were split asunder in the 1970s. I lived in the same country as my Sis but only got to see her on holidays in Singapore. We were placed in boarding schools and in many ways they were formative years. Example: I go to gigs and other events on my own. Why? Because, from an early age, I had to learn that the person who I could most rely on……was me. No one’s blaming anyone. I’ve had therapy. 

Mum still feels terrible about leaving us, but Dad’s job prospects were worse in the UK than the great offer he had to work overseas. And it’s made my bond with my sister strong.

But, I’ve just realised on the Tube, and wow, what a moment (welling up – slightly awkward) that what happened at Chris’s school was a moment when the three of us had a good laugh at the whole boarding school experiment and yes, stuck two fingers up at it. I’ve now realised it was a moment when the tension broke and, quite frankly, we didn’t care what anyone thought. It was a golden moment with my Mum and Chris.   

Don’t you want me baby

So I blame my parents. Oh, get over it Palmer. My family was unbelievably close once we’ve survived the Singapore experiment. I even got to actually live with my sister from 1975-1980. And then she went to University. And I was there at her 21st birthday party in Oxford.

It was 1982 and Human League were in the charts (although my sister thought their hit was about unwanted pregnancy: “Don’t you want my baby?”). Chris’s coming-of-age party saw Mum and Dad do that thing where they came along to say hello for the first half hour. We were all desperate for them to leave. These days, our kids wouldn’t allow us to be there. Too embarrassing. So, in a way, my parents were lucky to be present.

My sister’s friend Mark was on the DJ decks, pretty impressed with his own selection of music, including cool bands like Scritti Politti. And Dad said something disparaging about the music. Mark should have put two and two together and realised who this middle-aged couple were, and then realised that they were my Mum and Dad. Instead, he shouted: “Well, you come over here if you think you can do any fucking better, mate.”

To my Dad. To. My. Dad. Let’s not talk of this incident again.  
Although, let’s keep it activity in the early eighties and move from Oxford, to Rugeley in Staffordshire. Let’s talk about Mrs Steve.

Midlands mayhem

Mrs Steve was at a dinner / dance. They were all the rage as Soft Cell’s Tainted Love topped the charts. Mrs Steve and her sister Ruth grew up in Rugeley.

Rugeley isn't well known. The town probably doesn't see the producers of property programmes turn up and do up people's houses. There was always Dr Palmer (no relation), the Rugeley poisoner. Or, as Wikipedia describes him: ‘William Palmer (murderer)’. Anyway, he was hanged and it sort of put Rugeley on the map; in 1856. It's been pretty sleepy ever since. So, we were watching the comedy 'Raised by Wolves' recently; set it Wolverhampton, the single Mum goes out on a less-than-glamourous date and, on her return, says rather ironically: "He took me to Tesco in Rugeley - and back."

These days the town hosts a massive Amazon depot; across the road from the power station. A sort of old days / new days snapshot of modern Britain. Mrs Steve freely admits that until her sister - Ruth’s - husband Andrew turned up and started to take them to clubs and gigs in Birmingham and Stoke, her social life was pretty mundane; it was either house parties, the social club at the power station or a conference suite at a nearby hotel. Edgy stuff.

This hotel’s function room had to have a shiny parkay floor.  It was mandatory. Or should have been. It was the eighties, after all. At a sixth form party in the function room, in front of her peers, Ruth went to the loo and returned to the table, only to turn on a heel and go arse over tit on the heavily-polished floor. Everyone laughed. The entire sixth form. Then Mrs Steve went to the loo and, on her return, did exactly the same thing. Arse. Over. Tit. Everyone laughed. Again. It’s the sort of déjà vu development that sisters don’t ever want repeated. They were forever remembered as the sprawling pissed sisters. But they weren’t pissed. They were just unable to negotiate that slippery floor in heels. 

How dare I write about my wife embarrassing herself? Well, for the record, she saved me. Have you read the book (or seen the film) One Day, by David Nicholls? I was Dexter. I was in danger of turning into a right royal wanker. And this book would have been five times bigger; it would have been an encyclopaedia. To stop this happening, all Mrs Steve had to do was commit to spending the rest of her life with me.  In return, I’ve embarrassed her on a daily basis. X.

Rich world, poor me

Around the same time as the Staffordshire slip-up, down in Hertfordshire, I was becoming increasingly upset and frustrated by what was happening in the Third World. I was idealistic and determined to do something about how the rich world was worried about petty things…when people were dying in developing countries. So I did something very radical and joined the Welwyn-Hatfield branch of the World Development Movement. I know. Edgy stuff. Except when I arrived for the first meeting, at someone’s house, with people who were all probably at least 20 years older than me, I said the wrong thing.

Instead of saying: “I’ll take my coat off”, I mistakenly said: “I’ll take my clothes off.” Well, it wasn’t that kind of meeting, in a house full of people that, I would, at the time, have described as ‘middle aged’. It was, though, like a premonition of events at the massage parlour thirty years later. I’m not sure I went back to another meeting. And I didn’t save the world.

Also circa 1981, I went around with a condom in the pocket of my jean jacket. Looking back, that’s a really embarrassing memory. I mean, really: jean jackets? Well, it was 1981 after all. It got worse. I tried to buy an album at J and J Records, Hatfield and could only recoil in horror as, instead of a five pound note, I produced that (still unused) condom out of my jean jacket pocket by mistake. I think the shop assistant, who was aged perhaps five years older than me, laughed mainly because the condom looked like it had passed its sell-by date. I think the outer wrapping had worn down to the rubber. Which Hatfield girl would pass up a chance for some action with me? I wanted a girlfriend. I didn’t get one.

Going swimmingly

Back to family life. I’ll finish this chapter with a story from around the time that I was writing the draft of my book about my son Stan, ‘Down’s with the kids’. I like to go for a run at lunchtime once a week. Occasionally though, I pick up a sports injury and I have to go for a swim. This one time, I was determined to get from my desk at work to the pool and back within an hour. I hopped on a Boris Bike (one of the shared cycles you can rent that are scattered over London).
To succeed, the mission involved running from the cycle drop-off point to the pool and changing in double-quick time. All so I could prove a point. The trunks, I have to say, felt a bit tight. I swam up and down, had a shower, got dressed, ran to the bike rack and was back at my desk. In 59 minutes. Result.

When I got home Mrs Steve quizzed me on the trunks. They weren’t mine. They had to be my eldest’s. Harry was fifteen at the time, and it was slightly inappropriate for me to wear them. Yes? But no; it turns out they were actually my youngest’s trunks. Stan was twelve. And they had hardly covered me – anywhere. I was in such a rush that I didn’t notice.

The pool I go to has historically been one where quite a few of the clientele are very fit - and good-looking - gay men. Now; I’d put on a few pounds due to my injury and subsequent lack of activity. I must have looked like a desperate fat old man in a mock g-string, on the pull.  Of course, my family made me re-enact the event, a number of times, with Stan’s trunks on, much to their mirth. I’d imagine the masseuse from chapter one would have whipped them off in a second, although she may have had to use a can opener.