Wednesday, 25 August 2010


Herewith another piece for Critical Reaction, which contains my reflections on Edinburgh.

Additional recommendations if you're there are Doctor Brown and The Boy With Tape on His Face.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Let's Start A Campaign

I'm done with being bashful. It doesn't work. I want to be a superstar.

Help me achieve that goal here.

Oxford, ah OXFORD

So you're standing around with your friend in college one day, and an eccentric American asks if he can film you for some documentary he's making. He is interested in what it's like to be a student at Oxford.
You figure "What the Hell?", and you also assume that by "documentary" the chap basically means a moving image version of his holiday snaps. Without having time to say to your chum "Let's have some fun with this" you launch into the interview and egg each other on to become more and more preposterous. You take some truths and half truths (I was NOT naked) and twist them into something ludicrous, solely to amuse each other. You think so little of the whole experience that you barely mention it to other friends.
So it comes as shock when over a decade later a friend who is a current Oxford undergraduate sends you an email asking if you can confirm that it's you in the YouTube clip (a clip which to date has had 49,140 hits and which comes top of a search for "Oxford University students").
You laugh heartily and nostalgically. And then you read the comments.
My God - almost everyone has taken this on face value. You find that screamingly funny.
But most of the viewers seem to think that it's not just wholly authentic but contemporary as well, and thus you realise that you have been responsible for actually dissuading people from applying to Oxford.* You feel a bit guilty about this, and for playing a prank on a nice man.
You also realise that even now some people will think that your protestations are an elaborate ruse and that you are being thoroughly revisionist. All I can say is hey, I am a stand-up comedian today and I was one in all but name then too.
Is that really all I can and should say? A thoroughly honest assessment demands that I acknowledge that, just as my onstage comedy character reveals deeper truths even if it is not me as such, Murali and I did give the world a glimpse of our inner selves.
So the intrepid documentary maker hit the mother lode after all: he managed to make his subjects give away more than they planned to, even if we thought we were the ones in control (and even though we honestly weren't anything like as frightful as we were pretending to be). At least I feel less guilty; David Mundstock, aka The Intrepid Berkeley Explorer, had the last laugh after all.
Two years on from seeing this video, I think that the readers of this blog deserve to see it too. It'll be on TV clip shows if I ever make it big (or for that matter if Murali does) and if David is happy to sell the rights!

*Although I like to think that the truly special people (people like Liquidshift and HrmTheNinjaBunny, who both left untypically appreciative comments) will instead be positively encouraged to apply.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Up To Chilly Jockoland

Hey y'all, come and see me in Edinburgh at this show! It's started already but I personally will be there from Wednesday all being well. Our last date is 17th August. We kick off at 8:30pm at the Banshee Labyrinth, 29-35 Niddry Street, Edinburgh EH1 1LG.
Here is a link.
I will be doing some other slots up there too. Nick Hodder has invited me to join him for some of his shows. I'll link to those and any others ASAP.

But Then Again, It Might Just Be Alright After All

I meant what I wrote in my last post. But I've had a good day so far today, and it's got me thinking.

Blind faith has little to recommend it, but not nothing at all. We all depend on it sometimes, and those who claim to be purely and invariably rational are telling porkies. Moreover, there is one thing we can all do that has a demonstrable and significant effect: positive thinking.

Positive thinking isn't about lying to yourself. It is isn't about ignoring the downside. What it is about is making sure that one acknowledges the upside too. Having done so, focussing on that is usually more fruitful than worry and negativity. And if it doesn't quite create a self-fufilling prophecy, it does take you down the right road. Let me give you a concrete example.

I didn't wake up this morning. I woke up this afternoon. I couldn't get to sleep until about 4:30 in the morning, and having stirred briefly to use the bathroom, I emerged to face the day at 13:10.

There are two ways to address such a situation. One is to effectively write the day off as ruined, the other is to seize it. There are good cases to be made for each approach, but the point is that you HAVE to make a decision. I chose the latter.

I took myself off the gym, and decided to have a hardcore workout. I've been reading very persuasive material online that suggests we can train a lot harder in the gym than we think we can, and go for it every time. It comes from John Broz, a weightlifting coach who runs a gym in Las Vagas, Nevada. His best argument - or at least the most accessible one - is that when manual workers start their careers they find it incredibly draining and difficult, but they can't be effete and decide that they are "overtrained" as they would be fired. Sure enough, they adapt, and while it might still be a tough job, it becomes eminently do-able. Spurred on by this, I hit the weights today.

I felt knackered as I approached the gym. At the squat rack, I contemplated calling it a day for squats after a few sets. And then I decided not to.

Consequently I had the very great pleasure of finding I could handle a weight that I thought borderline with ease. Buoyed up, I switched to partial deadlifts. They were going well, and I thought I'd do some with 160kg. I realised that in fact the bar was loaded with 180kg. I went for it any way. No problem at all.

Then I did some bench pressing. Man, I struggle with technique on this lift. But instead of quitting, I asked a trainer for advice. He came up with an idea that had never occured to me that revolutionised my technique and made the same weight seem half as heavy.

I was going to do some calf work, but my Achilles tendon on my left side felt weak, so I didn't. But I did do some forearm stuff instead. I was in the gym for at least an hour and a half, and I feel full of beans. In fact I was so alert that I came up with a quick witted response to an abusive drunk.

He ambled up to me holding a can of lager and wearing a shit-eating grin as I was walking to the Tube, and I side-stepped him as I presumed he was after money. Instead he wanted to have a pop. "You eat too many hamburgers, you do," he exclaimed. I countered thus: "You drink too much, you old soak. Get a fucking job." It wouldn't win any prizes, and is hardly my finest work, but it was pleasing. Even the drunkard laughed. All too often, one only thinks of the perfect response several hours later (although it is something that can be honed by doing stand-up comedy). But I was bright and bushy-eyed.

Why mention all this? It's not because I think you enjoy my articles on powerlifting. It is because, as dear old Henry Rollins makes clear, we can learn a great deal about life from pumping iron.

Basically, I got the balance just right. I pushed myself by being determined, but I didn't hurt myself by ignoring reality. And rather than giving up I took rational, well informed advice. That beat saying a prayer and hoping for the best.

I think that anyone and everyone can benefit from lifting weights. But even if you're a refusenik (in which case you are probably ignorant and misinformed) please take this little vignette as a life lesson.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

It's Not Necessarily Going To Be Alright

Loss of faith is famously hard to deal with, but it seems to me that it should nonetheless be acknowledged. Lying to oneself is rarely healthy and perhaps the first stage in recovery, or at least in enduring, is to be honest.
I have never really had any religious conviction, despite not having any great hostility to religion per se. Indeed I support the Church of England for political reasons. Although it is busy tearing itself apart and bedevilled by bigots, it has served as a bulwark against tyranny in its own way. Unfortunately where once I admired Rowan Williams and considered him to have an interesting and important perspective, I now think him an obscurantist ponce who needs to grow a pair.
Fundamentalism is, obviously, a thoroughly bad thing and should be resisted. We should mock and undermine and bully such people as much as possible. The threat of religious extremism requires the government to make clear that far from giving succour or the time of day to those who advocate against the interests of the United Kingdom they will - as necessary - sack them, denounce them, arrest them or slaughter them.
A genuine faith in an all-powerful benevolent God evades me as it evaded Epicurus, and for the same reason. The problem of evil, and of pain, is insurmountable for me. That need not rule out the possibility of an afterlife, but I can't really see any reason to have confidence in that either.
What has always sustained me, though, is a different kind of faith. This one was unshakable and sincere. In no way was it forced. It was a simple but powerful conviction that no matter what, ultimately everything would be OK.
And that assurance has gone. Because there is no more reason to believe that than to believe that we will see our loved ones again after they and we die, or that there is a God that loves us and that can do anything (even though life is beyond miserable for billions of people) or that a man from the Middle East rose bodily from the dead and ascended into Heaven.
Of course we tend to realise these things when we suffer personally. It is inevitable, understandable and forgivable rather than contemptible when someone loses their faith as a result of the death of their child, even though they surely knew that children die horribly every day.
But I suppose that one can think of oneself as luckier than others, and definitely as more fortunate. I know I am more fortunate than huge numbers of people. (I also know that it is possible to suffer desperately even whilst wealthy and physically healthy, and those who do not appreciate that - let us call them left wingers for short - are loathsome idiots.)
So let me say that in both the specific and the general case, there is no reason to believe that ultimately everything will be OK.
I should probably go to bed now.
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