Monday, 17 December 2012

Morgan Freeman

Monday, 23 July 2012

Why I Gave Up Stand Up Comedy - And Why I Miss It: A Lament, Part 1.

So I had a bit of a falling out with my agent a few months ago, and it seemed as good a moment as any to draw the line under my reasonably-successful-but-never-quite-took-off stand up career. With a little bit of distance from that decision, I thought I'd write some blogs about how and why I got into stand up, the peaks and troughs, the triumphs and disasters.

Here's how I started. I was a businessman and former lawyer who was looking for new experiences to spice things up. This was pre-children when I didn't know any better. So, thinking I was every bit as funny as the comedians I trudged up to watch every year at the Edinburgh Festival, I decided to give it a shot. There was no career plan, no intention of pursuing it; it was just something to tell the grandchildren. 'Yeah, granddad did stand up once. Impressed? Kids? I say, granddad, Come on, turn that off...' So I put together 15 minutes of cripplingly unfunny material, turned up at the King's Head in Crouch End in December 1992 and was told to do 5 minutes (along with the other 21 open mic hopefuls). Imagine. A bloke with only one barmitzvah and one wedding speech under his belt suddenly having to edit on the fly. Fuck.

Naturally, I did my best joke first: 'As this is my first ever stand up performance, I thought I'd tell you something about myself. I started life (comic pause) as a sperm...' Tumbleweed. And on I ploughed, hoping a hole would open up and suck me all the way to Hades. In desperation and with no dignity left to lose, I threw a couple of impressions in (the only two I could do) - Sean Connery and Frank Bruno - and got a titter. An impressionist! Ah, that's what I am. Who knew? Well actually I was mimic, the kid who did the teachers at school, a bloke who could do a voice or two, some accents, that sort of thing.

I couldn't let it end on such a sour note, and if I could do two, surely I could do ten. So off I went to learn some more voices. Three months later, Comedy Cafe Open Mic night - only won, didn't I? Beat some bloke called Tim Vine into second place. The prize? A paid gig the following night. I had no material, but I could do Chris Eubank. I got some laughs. Suddenly, I was inspired. My sixth gig was the heat for the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition, my ninth, the final alongside Ronni Ancona (who won), Ben Miller and Tim Vine (him again). It was the key to the door, long before I was ready to go through it. Bookers booked me, Jongleurs fast-tracked me, national radio slots followed, I was on TV by August 1993; and I started making inroads into commercial and documentary voiceovers, cartoons, video games.

Bonkers. All because I could sound a bit like other people. I had no jokes to speak of, but people loved the voices and eventually my script caught up. I was soon playing at great venues and shitholes alike. One weekend The Comedy Store, the next, the Flatulent Pig in Stow-on-the-Wold. Corporate gigs followed, as did presenting gigs, bits of TV, voiceovers. It was all fun then. I didn't do it for the money, mainly because - corporates and voiceovers aside - there wasn't much to speak of; it was for the joy of doing it, making people laugh, the power...ahahahahahaha! Meanwhile I was still running my business, having kids, paying my mortgage, the whole schmeer, so I could only gig at weekends and I turned down God knows how many opportunities because of work commitments, including a TV series that helped make someone else famous. Drove my agent mad. Even so, I somehow managed to squeeze in a few solo shows at Edinburgh, plus a sketch show which became a Radio 4 series; I was a Radio 5 Live regular, with my own Christmas show and a gig as lead impressionist on another; I gigged alongside many of today's household names; I did bits of TV (100 Greatest All-Sorts-Of-Shit, The Stand Up Show, Celebri...cough, ahem, sorry...Celebrity Squares...there, now you know). I wrote all sorts of stuff for radio, had various sitcom scripts and pitches seriously considered by the BBC, got invited to a BBC residential scriptwriters' week, the works. I was nearly - nearly - in.

But I never quite committed. It was never my career. I didn't need to be on stage. It wasn't my drug. I had other things to think about - my business interests in recruitment and property, my family, my desire to write books (a whole other story). I retired from stand up a few times, went through various agents (nearly all shit), made comebacks...the truth was, though, that I didn't need it badly enough; I'd already built a life and a steady income before I started in showbiz and without the burning passion, the hunger or, indeed, the time, I was never going to crack it, never gain the necessary momentum.

In part 2, I'll lift the lid on my fellow stand ups, describe some of the shit gigs, maybe some other stuff. Are you listening...anyone?..anyone? Kids?

Friday, 25 May 2012

Dizzy C's Little Book Blog: Review - Song in the Wrong Key - Simon Lipson

Dizzy C's Little Book Blog: Review - Song in the Wrong Key - Simon Lipson: It is the Eurovision Song Contest this week.  The final on Saturday.  This novel is very topical as the main character, Michael writes a son...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Fair Weather Cyclists

Let me be clear. We're all entitled to use the roads, provided we do so with care and consideration for others. A bit of common courtesy combined with the observance of some relatively simple rules and regulations should ensure we all get to and from our destinations safely. Yes, there will be incidents and accidents to quote Paul Simon, but these, while inevitable are thankfully relatively rare given the volume of traffic out there. Be aware, be cautious, think of others.

You see? I'm a fair-minded, thoughtful individual with liberal, John Stuart Mill 'harm principle' sympathies when it comes to road use. Which is why, when I say what I'm about to say, you might wonder whether I'm losing it a bit. It's just that...well, you fair weather cyclists get on my effing tits. You've got no right to be out there with your gleaming, un-corroded, winter-shy bicycles clogging up the roads and all available lampposts and cycle stands as soon as the bloody sun comes out. I mean, there's me, come rain or shine, snow or frost, slogging my way into town every day - and I never miss, ever - nose running, eyes raw, fingers sopping and solid, risking my life on all manner of slippery and treacherous road surface, often in the dark, attaching and detaching lights, scrabbling into useless rainwear at every squall, choking on fog, coddling inside layers that are never quite enough...just so you can come along in late May, all virtuous in your tee-shirts and idiotic shorts, and claim the roads for yourselves. Well it's not right, is it? They're mine.

And you - yes you - on your Boris Bike, trundling around, thinking you're something special, never signalling, chatting to your mates as you ride four abreast, stopping to take in the scenery, bloody-well enjoying your little cycle in the sun, whilst wilfully ignoring the essential tenets of daily city centre cycling - you need to buck up. Here's the code. Learn it:
1) Always go through red lights (if safe to do so - you're on a bloody bike, f'Chrissakes)
2) Always go the wrong way up one way streets (if safe to do so - you're on a bloody bike, f'Chrissakes)
3) Shout at and shock idiotic pedestrians who don't look because they're on their mobile phones (safe or otherwise NB you may legally clip them on a shoulder or knee)
4) Scream at and remonstrate with bus drivers when they try and kill you (because they can't really answer back with passengers on board and professional restrictions and whatnot)
5) Kill - literally kill, if at all possible - white van drivers because they are trying to kill you (pre-emptive, self preservation principle)
6) Remove taxi drivers' wing mirrors at every opportunity with a violent swing of the hand (they're taxi drivers - doesn't matter; and they deserve it for past and future mis-deeds)
7) Have at your disposal a pithy string of epithets to hurl at swerving, mindless drivers on phones, fiddling with radios etc (my personal favourite: 'I've got two little girls who want to see their Dad at home tonight, not visit him in hospital because some cu*t thinks his phone call is more important than fucking looking where he's going' - admittedly, this is clumsy and lengthy and only works when, by some miracle, I've caught up with the miscreant at the next lights and his window is open and he's not fucking enormous and shaven-headed.)

So where was I? Oh yes. You, on your Boris Bike, indeed all of you fair weather dawdlers - this is what we hardened cyclists are all about. It's not a playground out there. Get with the programme or get off our roads. And stop taking our parking spaces. I mean it.

Ok. Off my chest. I think I need a nice cup of cocoa and a Digestive.

Monday, 16 April 2012

On Being Deaf

Confession. I'm not actually deaf. I can function like most people, hear what I need to hear and rarely get caught out. If I had to put a figure on it, I'd say I'm about 70% deaf. My right ear is completely useless; that's 50% right there. If I bash it with a saucepan or stick the radio on it at full volume, it can pick up some sounds, but I'm essentially reliant on my left ear - the remaining 30%, if my maths isn't awry - which was failing long before my right packed in.

I'd had a problem with tinnitus about 10 years ago. This condition, as most people know, is characterised by an incessant variety of blips, cracks and ringing sounds which can deprive beleaguered victims of sleep and sanity. The causes are disputed, but my specialist told me that when your hearing starts to fail, your body starts 'reaching' for sound - something to do with an atavistic self-preservation instinct; we need to hear if we're being chased/stalked/about to be attacked, an essential skill if you insist on going to Arsenal wearing a Spurs shirt, for example - and instead starts picking up the many and various electrical sounds your body makes which we normally screen out. The solutions include listening to other sounds, especially at night, so that the body focuses on them rather than the tinnitus, and improving your hearing by using hearing aids. I tried everything, but couldn't get on with hearing aids - frankly, I wasn't prepared to accept that I needed them at my relatively young age - and eventually learned to screen the maddening noises out by sheer force of will.

Then, about 6 years ago, my right ear - my better ear at that time - closed for business. One minute I could hear, the next I was deaf. Sudden deafness, it's called, and nobody knows what causes it. Theories range from bangs on the head to viruses. My GP thought it was an ear infection and gave me some drops. Panicked when the hearing didn't improve, I went to see another GP at the practice who prescribed different drops. Valuable time was being lost but I didn't know it. The condition can be ameliorated - partially or fully - provided you act fast. Nearly a week after the hearing failed, I saw a specialist who put me on steroids and, thankfully, my hearing returned. It wasn't as clear or mellow as before, but I'd have settled for it. But, after two years of the hearing coming and going, it finally went, leaving me to stumble on with only a dodgy left ear.

The problem for those with unilateral hearing loss is that you can't tell where sound is coming from. As far as I'm concerned, it's all coming from my left, which can be a problem when I'm crossing the road or trying to deal with a heckler in a comedy club (I'm a stand-up, in case you didn't know). On one occasion in a God-forsaken club in Preston, I lashed out at a woman who was utterly blameless. Poor love. Sorry again, by the way.

But deafness is no joke. I suppose I will have next to no hearing by the time I'm 70 and that's a scary prospect. At the moment, hearing aids help a bit (I use a CROS system which means noise on my right side is transferred to my left hearing aid). They help me hear films and the telly, and I can use them in social situations albeit, with all the noise clattering into one ear, it can be difficult to pick up conversation. This can be a blessing, of course, enabling me to screen crashing bores out if I need to. There are other advantages. Cocking a deaf'n becomes easier to justify. My wife yelling something from three floors up can be safely ignored; my kids asking where my wallet is, likewise. Well I can't bloody hear, can I? But it's a bastard most of the time. As mentioned, doing stand-up as a partially deaf man can be hazardous; trying to pick up people speaking in hushed tones - as they often do in the studios where I do voice overs - leaving me craning and guessing how to respond; in shops when they ask me for ten pounds and I hand them a fiver (nothing to do with the deafness, that). Many's the time I've nodded when I should have shaken my head, or gone off at some irrelevant tangent, leaving my inquisitors utterly baffled. I find myself concentrating intently on people's lips, which helps make sense of some of the sounds I'm missing, but probably makes them think I'm being a bit weird.

Most of the time I don't wear my aids. Luckily, I work alone in coffee bars during the day - most of the time - and don't need them. Yet, miraculously, I can still hear American teenage girls talking, like, shit? five tables away as if they're bellowing in my ear. And I can always hear annoying three year olds running wild while their parents assume everyone finds their offspring as charming as they do. That kind of shit is audible. It's the finer points of hearing I miss out on. The sharply delivered quip, the whispered response, the tones and shades of good music. Hopeless.

The only thing I can hear in my right ear is that Jumbo jet taking off 24 hours a day. Yes, deaf as a doornail, but lumbered with deafening tinnitus. Great, eh? There are innovations in the pipeline, and a cochlear implant might restore some of what I've lost, but I don't hold out much hope. Learning to live with it is probably the way forward.


Wednesday, 11 April 2012

On Literary Agents

Let me take you on a journey. It's 2002 and I've just submitted my lovingly crafted manuscript to five literary agents. I don't really know what I'm doing, of course, so I've picked them out more or less at random. Less than two weeks later and my mobile trills. It's one of them, bubbling, champing at the bit, not just excited about my novel, but also the fact that, as a professional performer, I will be brilliant at promoting it across the UK and...wait for it...globally. Yes, this was what the lady told me during our first conversation. Oh, and we're not talking about some grubby, pay-us-for-reading-your-MS, back street, fly-by-nights; we're talking J K Rowling's agents.

Well that was bloody easy. Wasn't this agent business supposed to be a nightmare? Shouldn't you endure 82 rejections before you get even a tickle? I mean, even the saintly J K got rejections. There was a catch, of course, but a smallish one, I thought. They wanted me to work with one of their editors to get the MS into shape before formally signing me up and submitting it to the major publishers. Well why not? They're the pros, they know what sells. Undoubtedly, many of their comments were valid - my female protagonist was too male, too hard - and some of the structuring needed tweaking. I re-submitted the draft but was then asked to soften the protagonist further. Because they'd missed my point. She was meant to be strident, someone whose independence and fuck-you attitude masked her emotional instability and desperate craving to be loved. They wanted her to be a timid, emotionally together, run-of-the-mill office worker who somehow goes off the rails. Boring.

Well what would you have done? My guess is that you - and, indeed, any sane person - would have done whatever they told you to do. J K Fucking Rowling's agents!!! Come on! Key to the door. Well not me, thank you very much. No, I stood by my artistic principles, told them they didn't understand the book, and walked away. What. A. Fucking. Wanker.

A couple of the other agents expressed an interest but it went no further and, two years later in a fit of narcissistic pique, I published it myself through Matador. Turned out I was pretty good at selling the book - I shifted 400 on the back of some local radio interviews, personal appearances and good reviews, but it was all after the event and half-hearted. Chance missed.

That book was a psychological thriller. But I'm a comedian and thought my next attempt at novel writing should be something within my natural genre. So Song In The Wrong Key was born, the story of a middle-aged man whose idyllic family life falls apart when he's made redundant. Redemption is achieved via his serendipitous selection as the UK's Eurovision Song Contest entrant. It's probably best described as an edgy romcom, with the emphasis on com.

And so on to another ridiculous dance with the agents. I submitted it to 6 of them, and three responded asking for the full MS. A good hit rate, apparently. A fourth didn't bother with all that. He wanted to sign me. I'd only applied to him because he accepted MSs via email, which saves a lot of bother, as well as photocopying and postage costs. And I was flattered - or, to put it another way, still being a fucking wanker. He was an established agent, but one with a conspicuously thin roster of fiction writers. To cut a long story short, it didn't work out. My feeling is that his contact list amongst the fiction publishers numbered no more than two or three. When they didn't take the bait, there was nowhere else to go.

So I left him. Now I've published the book through my own company, Lane & Hart. I've had it professionally typeset and the cover professionally designed. I've engaged a top class PR agent and we're lining up radio and press interviews and personal appearances. I've run a giveaway on Goodreads (745 people applied) and will do another. I uploaded it to Kindle and have been receiving sparkling 5 star reviews (likewise on Goodreads). Would I rather have done all this through traditional channels - an agent championing my book, a top publisher with a serious marketing budget, top chains stocking it etc? Of bloody course. But that all takes patience and a thick hide, neither of which I possess. Yes, you can earn more money per unit by selling on Kindle, but that's not what this is about. Writers need validation and, as much as I value and appreciate the reviews of the handful of readers who've bought the book so far, a traditional deal would open my work up to a vast readership and set me along the path I really want to follow, that of an established author with an established readership who can't wait for my next book. It might come to that one day, but my guess is that it's more likely to happen if an agent and a traditional publisher pick up the reins from here. Well come on. What are you waiting for?

Friday, 6 April 2012

On Writing My Book

I’d feel a bit pretentious if I declared that writing is in my blood or that it’s my consuming passion; I don’t have to write to live. I can survive on chocolate, if it comes to it. But it’s a marvellous means of expression, a wonderfully creative and fluid medium for the ideas that rattle around my head. Being a comedian and comedy writer (and ex-solicitor, but we don’t talk about that), I can express myself on stage or in a script, but both forms are necessarily limited by what audiences – who offer a very instant response - or terrified-for-their-jobs TV/radio producers demand. Novels, though, unfurl slowly; they allow you room to breathe, to lay things out, to establish rhythms, to colour every character in, right from the opening sentence. I suppose the people who read my book will tell me whether I’m doing it right but, so far at least, they seem to approve. 

I’m an avid reader – contemporary fiction with a humorous bent being my favourite genre – and I always felt I could ‘do’ a Nick Hornby or David Nicholls if I put my mind to it. Surely it couldn’t be that hard? Well, as I discovered, it is that hard. In the way that comedy is hard. I was always the quite amusing guy amongst my friends, the guy with the quick ripostes and funny voices, but I was a million miles from being a guy who could make a roomful of strangers laugh rather than throw something heavy at me. It took me a while – and the odd bruise - to bridge the gap between the two.

The dialogue in Song In The Wrong Key came fairly easily to me, but structure, story-lining, pacing, knowing when to cut out the distracting quips, avoiding the self-indulgence, were elements of the writing process I had to learn mostly through trial and error. Every time I thought I’d completed the definitive draft, another ‘quick’ read-through convinced me there was still work to do, cuts to make, bits to shift, commas to add. In truth, you can refine a draft ad infinitum, but at some point you have to say ‘that’s the one’ – it’s never an easy task to let go, like watching your child go off to university.

Song In The Wrong Key is my second book. My first, Losing It, was a psychological thriller based, loosely, on something that happened to me as a young man. I started it about 18 years ago, left the first 50 pages in a drawer for 10 years, then started again. At the time I’d been reading a lot of grim, gory thrillers and felt I had it in me to emulate the genre. It was a difficult process for me because the tone of the book is fairly po-faced...and I’m not! Even so, J K Rowling’s then agents took a shine to it and offered to represent me, provided I made some changes. Which I did, but not entirely to their liking. Stupidly, I refused to make more changes and nothing came of it. In a fit of pique, I published through Matador, sold 400 copies and forgot about writing for a few years.

It was about 4 years ago when I decided to write something more in keeping with my natural comedic bent. I’ve always been drawn to stories about nobodies suddenly rising to prominence and, having been a wannabe pop star myself, Song almost wrote itself. The first draft flowed – I’d say it took a couple of months to finish - and I took great joy in writing a story with which I connected personally and was predominantly a comedy. Needless to say, the first draft was over-written, lumpy, occasionally illogical and chronologically confusing. Writing – good writing - as I’ve already suggested, is bloody hard work. But it was something to work with and I think the ‘stream of consciousness’ approach brought out the best in me from a comedic perspective. Structure, character and story-sharpening came later. I particularly enjoyed getting my teeth into the breakdown of the protagonist’s family and the central love story, both of which, hopefully, will tug at the heart strings (I get a bit misty-eyed watching Love Actually, so you know where I’m coming from). Some readers have already owned up to shedding a few tears which, as someone whose principal aim is to make them laugh, is a huge compliment.

Like most writers, I drew from experience. As the father of two girls, Millie and Katia were easy to write (mine are called Molly and Katie – that’s imagination for you!). And there’s something of my own life story in the protagonist, Mike’s, obsession with the former love of his life (I’m over her now, darling). And it’s through Mike’s voice that I was able to express many of my own attitudes and ideas. Friends who have read the book tell me it’s like listening to me prattle on, grumble, grouch and attempt to amuse. Mike is a heightened version of me, as is the protagonist of my follow-up novel, Standing Up – about a solicitor who becomes a stand-up (where do I get my ideas?).

My aim is to stick with edgy romantic comedies for the foreseeable future. But I shan’t put the cart before the horse. If no-one buys Song In The Wrong Key, though, I can always revert to gory thrillers.  

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Edinburgh Festival

I was first taken to the Edinburgh Festival by my parents when I was about 11 (a long, long time ago, before the internet, kids - actually, it was before cars with heaters). In those days, the main Festival comprised a handful of theatre and arts events and the Fringe was about as lush as a slaphead's comb-over.

And that was it until 1988 when I took my wife-to-be up there in an attempt to convince her of my aesthetic sensibilities. By then, the Fringe was fairly well established, albeit a far cry from the behemoth of today. The Assembly Rooms - now defunct - was the hub, while the Pleasance and the pre-blaze Gilded Balloon were in their infancy. We saw some cracking shows including Victor and Barry, a brilliant camp-fest with the young Alan Cumming who was clearly a star in the making.

Thereafter, we went almost every year, often with my parents in tow, and saw some stunning shows - plus, of course, plenty of crap. That's the Festival. New venues opened up every year, while existing ones expanded. Rawness was replaced by slickness and professionalism, and it became THE place to make your name. Pre mega-fame, we saw people like Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan, Alistair McGowan, Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Omid Djalili and Jenny Eclair. And the Perrier Award - since superseded by the Fosters - was the key to the comedy door.

Edinburgh inspired me to give stand-up a try, although I had no designs on a career in comedy. I'm shy and was never a performer, but I was that irritating attention-seeker who could make his friends laugh and thought I could simply adapt my schtick for a roomful of strangers. I got that dramatically wrong, as it turned out, but I had some impressions up my sleeve which seemed to work and, suddenly, and without particularly wanting it, I was launched into a 'career' which eventually included live work all over the UK and abroad, TV shows and countless radio shows.

Edinburgh, though, was the promised land and, in 1996, I was offered a last minute slot at the Gilded Balloon which I couldn't turn down. I should have. My half-baked show got me nowhere. The following year, I took more time over it, used my experience, brought to bear everything I'd learned, and performed an equally useless show in the same venue. I waited 5 more years before revealing my obsession with baldness with a show called Losing It. It was funny in parts, but wasn't well received and, worse, I shaved off all my hair for the 4 week run. I'm still not bald 10 years later, by the way, but remain traumatised. By 2005, I'd teamed up with Philippa Fordham and we took our show, He Barks, She Bites, to the Pleasance. We were nominated for the Dubble (sic) Act Award and spotted by the BBC, eventually getting our own series on Radio 4. Finally, Edinburgh had paid off.

This year, I decided to try Edinburgh for probably the last time. I had an idea for a show, you see - about how I stumbled into impressionism - and started exploring the possibilities. But it was a late decision, too late. In the old days, comedians applied in June, wrote their shows in July and pitched up in Edinburgh in August. Nowadays, you need to be on the case as soon as the previous Festival has finished, writing, previewing, organising a venue, having photos taken, creating posters, appointing a PR agent...and that's the tip of the iceberg. After I was offered a slot at a leading venue a couple of weeks ago, I started fumbling around trying to first locate then fit all the pieces of the jigsaw together. The show - nowhere near written - was the least of my concerns. And, as one delves into the Edinburgh minefield, it becomes clear that it's going to cost a fortune. Guarantees to the venue, travel, accommodation, printing, PR - not much change out of £10,000. With a following wind, a couple of good reviews and 50% seat occupancy, you might eventually only lose £7,000. The point, of course, is that this is an investment. If you get spotted by the BBC or a promoter who wants to take your show on tour or an awards panel, you could be on your way, but for the 2000+ shows that fly under the radar, it's a case of trudging home with all your savings blown.

The money wasn't the only reason I decided not to go, though it was certainly a compelling one. The show just wasn't going to be ready. And I'm old. I know that shouldn't be a factor, but comedy is a young man's game and mature performers are often given short shrift by reviewers however funny they might be. We're just not hip. And, worse, I'm an impressionist, the most heinous, unworthy, unoriginal genus of performer in the comedy-sphere, at least in the eyes of the comedy purists. Or wankers, as I prefer to call them. I'd only get a bashing if I didn't pitch the show just right, and you can't do that if it's April and you haven't even written it.

So...Camden Fringe, here I come! Edinburgh? Maybe next year.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


Can we talk about teeth for a minute?

They're a bit of a pain, aren't they? I mean, ok, they do a reasonable job of masticating our food and, in the right formation, can enhance a smile, but does that in any way excuse them all their deficiencies?

Look, here's where I'm coming from. At the age of seven, just after all my adult teeth had come through, some dick on a bike ploughed through me and destroyed the four at the front. One was lost forever, the other three ruined beyond redemption. I won't go into the years of suffering, the operations, the eventual removal of the traumatised teeth, the repulsive dentures I wore until I was twenty-one (that's why I never got off with girls - and you thought it was the acne and immaturity) or the stupid bridge some artless buffoon attached to my real teeth which made me look like I had no teeth (it was way too short and, I seem to recall, green). The replacement bridge (paid for by the NHS after some clumsy anaesthetist decimated the old one while I was having a knee operation - result!) was slightly better, but it didn't exactly twinkle.

Anyway, picking up the story many years later, there I was watching the football one Sunday, eating, as you do, a lump of nut brittle when, snap! the whole thing came off. I'm not just talking the bridge itself, I'm talking my own supporting teeth, sheared to the gumline. This was not an attractive look. And so it came to pass that I was left with two options. A denture like grandma used to wear (massive lump of pink plastic with a row of white plastic attached and something to stick it to my palate with) or implants. Now we're going back a few years here to when implants were in their infancy, but there was really no choice at all. So all the dental debris was removed and, when it had all healed, five bits of titanium were screwed into my head. Three months later and voila!, a neat, aesthetically pleasing denture was attached. And it's still there today.

And now, the many tortured teeth that supported the many dentures over the years, and which have been slowly disintegrating following years of fillings, agonising root canal et al, are ready to go. Here's the thing. Teeth hurt. They crumble. They chip. They jolt when you eat something too hot or too cold. They require painful, regular treatment just so they don't fall out. Implants? None of the above. Screw them in (granted the treatment is uncomfortable, but once it's done, it's done) stick them on, end of. Break one? Unscrew it, stick a new one on. Fancy something whiter, longer, more sticky-outy, maybe a Dracula fang? - just ask your dentist. They don't hurt, don't require much maintenance, rarely fail and leave you with a mouthful of expensive metal you can leave to your children. So I'm about to have six more. Why not?

And here's what I'll be recommending to the government to save us all a lot of bother, a lifetime of treatment and, I'm sure, huge NHS savings in the long run: at the age of 21, everyone should have all their teeth removed and replaced with implants. Nature has screwed up on this one - good idea, natural teeth, but the execution's awful - and titanium, trust me, is the future.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

On Builders

After much prevarication (just under nine years), Mrs L and I finally took the plunge and engaged a team of builders to carry out a minor house refurbishment. There wasn't a lot to do, was there? Knock through here, add something there, paint that. Except 'wouldn't it be nice if we just...' ended with 'well if we're going to do all that...we might as well do the whole house.'

And so, in December 2010, we made acquaintance with Michal and his crew. Michal is 6' 8" and not someone you want to fall out with over...well over anything. So I didn't. His boys, all Polish and unfailingly polite (except to the bonkers neighbour over whose driveway they parked every day just to watch him get in a froth), were dwarfs by comparison, one of them barely nudging 6' 2".

Day 1, Unforeseen Problem #1: That wall is going to need a steel frame to support it. Not just any old steel frame, mind, but one that will cost £350 just to design - enter the weirdo structural engineer. The frame itself cost way in excess of that, the installation...well, let's just say the contingency fund was looking woefully inadequate before the first week was out.

I won't bore you with the details of the disastrous kitchen designers and fitters (14 months later and it's still not finished); the arguments over the reneged promise to paint every room; the freezing fucking cold as doors and walls came down and the heating packed in; the useless - and I'm talking barely able to work a monkey wrench useless - plumber who has now made 796 visits to try (and fail) to rectify his own incompetence; the disappearance (off the face of the universe), money in hand, of the entire crew when we presented the snagging list (a mere 93 items).

Barely a year after that lot scarpered, we engaged another guy and his mute, scary mate to come in and finish everything off. Except his skills lay mainly in, I'm guessing, dressmaking or possibly retail. Hence the laughable attempt to prepare our front driveway which included cementing in anything not specifically removed by us (umbrellas, a loose manhole cover, one of the kids) and expertly 'repairing' a leaking pipe by burying it in concrete. Well we weren't to know these boys couldn't even put tiles on straight, were we? They came recommended, albeit I'm not sure by whom (whom needs shooting). And, bless them, when I sacked them after their ninth massive mistake of the day, they refused to remove the 27 - count 'em - bags of rubble comprising the erroneously laid concrete I had them remove from the driveway.

We live and learn...except we, obviously, don't.  


Thursday, 23 February 2012

Being Bald

Let's be clear. By any objective analysis, I'm not bald. Indeed, I'm told I have a thick - if greying - thatch that any sane man of my vintage would be proud to have flapping about atop his head.

Well say what you like, Mr Objective-Analysis. Like an anorexic is fat, I'm bald.

I need to explain. My Dad went bald before we even met. He was 30 when we first shook hands (I'm told I held onto his finger in a manly, British fashion on the day I was born) but it wasn't until I was about 10 that it first struck me that, in addition to passing his unusually thick-thigh and myopic-eye genes to his only son, he might also have let slip that poisonous baldness gene into my DNA. So, even as I experimented with David Bowie sticky-uppy hairstyles in my early teens and, later, the Duran Duran fop-top-mullet combo, I was convinced my days amongst the truly hirsute were numbered. As if to prove my terrifying theory, I started receding at 18 and, notwithstanding that I now had a hairline which matched that of my maternal grandfather and uncles (hairy bastards, all, well into their seventies) I thought it prudent to warn everyone in my immediate social orbit (and way, way beyond it) that I would soon be tress-less.  

It was only when I made Facebook contact with several friends I hadn't spoken to since the late 70s that it became clear just how far and wide I'd broadcast my obsession, and just how early I'd started. Every one of them queried my photo. Is that a wig? Thought you said you'd be bald at 25. Are you still being a fucking bore about your fucking hair?

Well I am still a fucking bore about my hair even though it hardly matters any more. I mean, I might still offer the occasional leer in the direction of a pretty young thing in Starbucks, but she sure as fuck ain't looking at me. No-one looks at old people. Ask my daughters. But I'm married, have been for a long time, and when my wife says she'd leave me if I went bald, I simply don't believe her. That's not grounds, is it? How shallow would that be? I wouldn't leave her if she stopped having fabulously wealthy parents.

No, I'm all set; don't need to impress the ladies any more. Like I ever did. But when you're 19 and you think you're going bald, the only thing on your mind is the ridicule, the loss of attractiveness, the premature ageing, the long lonely descent into forever-bachelorhood. Because women don't go for bald men, do they? And if they do, a 19 year old can't see it. A 53 year old knows no-one gives a shit.

And, if you need any more convincing, consider this. In 2002 I decided to do a show at the Edinburgh Festival which confronted baldness (ahem) head on. It was called Losing It and was a self-indulgent pile of shit with a few funny bits. I decided I couldn't convince the audience of my obsession (and its obvious hilarity!) unless I was bald myself. So, facing my worst fears, I shaved it all off. It was horrific, believe me, like losing a limb, but it had to be done. And this is how everyone I knew reacted: first sighting, fuck me!oh my God, ha ha! Three minutes later - forgotten, and never mentioned again. You see, unlike the superficial idiot with the shaved head, they only saw the bloke they'd always known. The hair didn't matter.

None of which means that losing it at any age - particularly when you're young - isn't traumatic. Of course it is. Given a choice, my guess is that no-one would go bald. And why not do something about it if you can (avoiding combovers, crappy pieces and weaves, of course)? But, ultimately - and here comes the schmaltzy moral to my story - it's about you, not your hair. You can be a dick with hair and a charmer without. A genetic predisposition like that says nothing about you.

That said, I've got a fucking fantastic head of hair (I'm told) so who cares about those slapheads?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Free Chapter: Song In The Wrong Key (


Im a little bit suspicious of people who smile on the Tube;
specifically, commuters who smile to themselves. I have no problem with
foreigners in fluorescent cagoules, laden with maps and sheaves of
leaflets espousing the many joys of  anybody’s-guess waxworks and
open-top bus rides in the rain. They’re abroad and don’t know any
better. Smile away. And gabbling, reeking lunatics holding onto empty
liquor bottles for dear life are often very cheerful and capable of
creating their own blissful space in otherwise sardine-packed carriages,
like penicillin in a Petri dish. They can smile all they want to, though
preferably nowhere near me. But that bloke in a suit who, without any
obvious visual or aural stimulation, is just bloody smiling - well, he
bothers me. What I want to know is - what’s so funny, Smiley? What
entitles you to be light of  mood when all about you, whey-faced
drones with their shark-dead eyes are drowning in quotidian gloom?
Worse, The Smiler, snubbing his nose at propriety, is invariably keen
to broadcast his anarchic streak. So he’ll catch your eye to rub it in. He
wants you to know there’s a party in his head and you’re not invited.
And that’s when I get to thinking - and I’m sure he knows this - have
I done something to amuse him, something I ought to be embarrassed
about? Has he spotted a matted glob of  blood on my collar, unwitting
evidence of  a careless shave? Or do I have a hole in my crotch
revealing my ‘Oh crap, it’s Monday’ pants (they were a birthday
present, by the way, which I wear on Tuesdays pursuant to my own
anarchic streak, thank you). And anyway, why’s that funny? A bloody
collar, an unstitched seam, a witty pant? Ok, maybe I’m being a bit
over-sensitive, maybe it’s not me at all or, indeed, anyone else in the
carriage. Maybe something funny’s just occurred to him.
I don’t care. I don’t like it.
That’s the thing about the London Underground. People forget
who they are; that they got on the train with distinct and, in many

Simon Lipson
cases, complex personalities. Yet once ensconced within the sterile
anonymity of  the seething warren, arcane rules of  non-engagement
kick in. The haughty, physical defence of  personal space; the flickering,
fascinated eyes watching stations hove into and out of  view, stations
they’ve flickered at a thousand times before; the intense ‘I’m reading,
don’t disturb me’ po-face. Woe betide anyone making eye contact.
That’s why The Smiler stands out. He’s not to be trusted.
But, you see, that morning, it was me who broke ranks. I’m normally
a pack-dog, an automaton, a leave-me-alone merchant, someone
whose mind is ostentatiously elsewhere. But I was smiling - yes, to
myself - a smile interlaced with the odd gentle convulsion. Maybe,
hopefully, it was me pissing everyone else off  for a change as I ran a
mental video of  the night before. Me, in the kitchen, clattering about,
hopeless-dad-fashion, trying to conjure a meal for Millie and Katia
under cover of  the laboured comedy routine of  which they’d long
since tired. Undeterred by their indifference, I ploughed on. Where
was the pasta? What the hell’s
spelt when it’s at home? Which one’s the
special pasta saucepan? How long do you boil it for - or do you fry it?
Do you need to add meat to Ragu or merely slop it on cold from the
jar? In truth, I didn’t know the answer to too many of  these questions.
Millie wore the weary look she’d inherited, gene-for-gene, from her
mother, eyelids fluttering, barely tolerating my ineptitude and ham-
fisted witlessness, while Katia smiled wryly as she chewed on a waxy
rod of  cheese of  indeterminate colour whilst skim-reading a Jacqueline
Wilson book I’d have found too racy and sophisticated at eighteen,
much less eight.
Sunday evening meals were invariably my domain and I took the
responsibility  extremely  semi-seriously  despite  my  absence  of
domestic skills. Lisa always seemed to be on top of  it when she was in
charge, not militarily, but with that languid efficiency that mums do so
well. But she’d gone out to her book club meeting to discuss some
impenetrable Nabokov treatise - which she’d actually packed in after
thirteen pages (as it turned out, she’d got further than most) - so I
couldn’t refer to her higher authority. Soldiering on, I finally got the
water to boil, chucked in the penne with a flourish - a steaming splash


Song in the Wrong Key
burnt my hand (important lesson there) - and stuck the Ragu jar in the
microwave. Yes I took the lid off, come on. As I collected the requisite
plates, cutlery and glasses, I began to sing ‘Home,’ the all-time Michael
Bublé classic. In my book anyway. The kids pointedly ignored me,
embarrassed for and by me, so I waltzed closer to them, knives and
forks for dancing partners, forcing the poor things to cower at the
table. Katia pulled her book around her face in an attempt to insulate
herself  from the crooning nutter, while Millie stifled a smile as she
coloured in a pencil-drawn map of  Ireland, Peru or possibly Jupiter in
her exercise book. I leaned down, singing first into Katia’s, then
Millie’s ear. They cringed theatrically.
‘Come on,’ I pleaded, ‘you always used to love it when Daddy sang
to you.’
‘That was when we were young,’ said Millie, now seven.
I smiled and picked up the song where I’d left off, upping the
volume extravagantly and losing a little tonal accuracy in the process.
Millie looked up dolefully, half  covering her ears, wincing. ‘The thing
is, Dad, your singing…’ she said. I nodded, awaiting her sweet little
put-down, ‘…it’s shit.’
Shit? I blame the mother. I never say ‘shit’ in front of  the kids. Ok,
I might occasionally slip it in if  it’s contextually appropriate, like
‘what’s this shit you’re watching kids?’ Otherwise? Never. But, even
allowing for Millie’s little cuss - in fact largely because of  it - I was
The Smiler on the train that morning, a contented man breezing
along, not a care in the world.
Funny how your life can change in an instant.
I battled my way up the escalators at Holborn station, slipped,
Astaire-like, through the snapping jaws of  the automatic barrier and
skipped up the final set of  stairs into the hazy sunlight. The cold
morning air was thick with fumes, the traffic jammed and furious, but
I didn’t care. I was awash in smugness, still congratulating myself  on
those brilliant kids of  mine, my wonderful, tolerant, capable wife, my
overall domestic bliss. I observed the poor bastards whose lives
couldn’t possibly be as rich as mine, trudging to wherever they were
doomed to spend yet another pointless day.


Simon Lipson
I floated east along High Holborn, all but whistling a happy tune,
arriving outside my office building within a couple of  joyous minutes.
I spun through the revolving door, nodded at the security guy - who,
as ever, looked down at his desk gravely as though he had several
pressing security issues on the go and couldn’t possibly allow himself
to be distracted - and, eschewing the lift, hopped up the three flights
of  stairs to my floor. I bundled through the double doors and strode
sunnily into the open plan office area where half  the staff  were
cranking up for the day. The other half, like me, were late. I nodded
with what I hope could never be interpreted as condescension at the
handful of  underlings lining the path to my executive office tucked
away in the far left hand corner. A couple of  yards from my door, I
was intercepted by Pete Moore, my immediate superior. Of  course, he
was only superior in terms of  job title, salary and perks - and, ok, he
lived with a young Spanish model in a Docklands penthouse, had a
first class Oxford degree in some social science or other and drove
something silver and supercharged - but that’s not how you judge a
man, is it? Pete and I went way back. In fact, I started at Edmonds &
White IT Systems a month before him and was, briefly, his boss. But
Pete was all thrusting ambition, a ruthless operator who lived to work
- when he wasn’t spending his vastly inflated salary on exotic holidays
and expensive women. His greatest skills were licking the right arses
and  looking  ferociously  busy  even  when  he  wasn’t,  a  deadly
combination with which I could never compete. Good luck to him.
The poor guy had no family to coddle him in their warm, loving
embrace after a hard day’s work. I wouldn’t have swapped anything I
had for anything of  his. Ok, that’s not strictly accurate, but I don’t
want to split hairs over anything as vacuous as money, status, property
or stunning señoritas.
Pete placed his hand gently on my elbow and guided me away from
my office and towards his. ‘A word?’ was his sole, solemn remark.
Pete’s cavernous suite was cold, not because of  the surfeit of smoked glass, the soulless décor or the absence of  family photos, but because of  his face, his manner. You always know, don’t you?
    ‘Got a problem, mate,’ he said, his voice flat, foreboding.


Song in the Wrong Key
‘Don’t tell me. Those morons at Delta-D complaining about the network again?’ I could already feel myself  drowning, but didn’t yet know which ocean was sucking me down.
‘No. They’re fine.’
‘Yeah,’ I scoffed without conviction, ‘had to work my butt off  to get them onside. Bunch of  complete…’
‘We’re letting you go.’
‘Mike? We’re letting you go.’
‘Ok mate. Let’s do lunch later, yeah?’
‘Mike. I’m not pissing around. This isn’t coming from me.’ ‘Look, I’ve got stuff  piled up on my desk, so…’
‘They thought it’d be better if  I told you.’
‘Ok. Now, I may look cheerful enough, but I’m actually beginning
to get a bit worried, Pete. I thought,’ I chuckled pitifully, my heart
thudding, lungs barely able to replenish the oxygen they were hyper-
exhaling, ‘…I thought I heard you say you were letting me go, but
‘Elliott and Barry hauled me in last thing Friday. They’re making you redundant. No other way to say it.’
I let that one sink in as I struggled to breathe. ‘They can’t do that.’
‘They can. They have. I’m really sorry, mate. You think this is easy  for me?’
‘Oh poor you,’ I said with desperate sarcasm, ‘you’d better sit
‘My hands are tied, Mike.’
‘Why me? What about…what about Arnie? He’s useless. Or
Christine?’ I was pleading now, pathetic, emasculated. This was as
good a point as any to slump into the über-modern, supremely
uncomfortable leather armchair reserved only for the best clients.
Pete stifled a wince.
‘She’s on half  what you’re on…and, you know…’
‘Big tits,’ I mumbled in a sad echo of  the mock-laddish banter Pete
and I occasionally engaged in before his accession to executioner-in-
chief. And Christine did, indeed, have a sizeable bust, which didn’t


Simon Lipson
excuse it, I know, but we’re men and we can’t help ourselves sometimes.
But right now it wasn’t remotely funny, even if  everyone tacitly
acknowledged that Christine’s rise was largely due to the tongues-out
enthusiasm generated by her most prominent physical feature.
‘She’s pulling in the business, Mike; making the boys upstairs happy.’
‘Big tits do that,’ I said, shaking my head like a defeated schoolboy,  ‘I’m at a massive disadvantage.’
Pete rolled his eyes as though this sexist nonsense was, belatedly, beneath him. He’d invented it, the bastard. ‘What can I say?’
    ‘I’ve been here longer than Arnie.’
‘But  Arnie’s  just  nailed  that  Freestone  contract,’  said  Pete, hammering home another irrefutable nail in my coffin, ‘otherwise he’d probably have been the one to go. You know business is bloody tough. Someone had to take the bullet.’
‘Someone?’ I knew all of  this, of  course, but you never quite see it coming. ‘Didn’t you argue on my behalf ? Didn’t you tell them how unlucky I’ve been? I mean, if  I’d pulled off  that deal with Virgin, Elliott and Barry could’ve fucking retired.’
‘But you didn’t.’
I pinched my thumb and forefinger to within a centimetre of  each
other. ‘I was this close.’ I wasn’t even in the neighbouring solar system.
‘They think you fucked it up. And right now, it’s costing us to keep you on. You’re not bringing in the fees. You’re not even paying for yourself.’
‘Costing us?’ I whined. ‘Us?’
‘Them. I mean them, the company,’ Pete said in a hollow display of personal loyalty of  which he then thought better. ‘Well no, I don’t. It is us, isn’t it? We all have to make our contribution. I’m part of  the family here. We’re all in this together.’
‘Are we?’
Pete sighed. I wish I could say this was hurting him, but the guy was
a consummate actor whose prime concern was covering his own
‘And, Mike. How long have we known each other? Of  course I pleaded with them on your behalf,’ he lied. ‘Come on.’


Song in the Wrong Key
‘I was top fee earner…’ ‘In 1998, Mike.’
The internal phone buzzed and Pete held up an apologetic finger as
he rounded his desk to take the call. He spoke sotto voce, but I cupped
my ear. ‘Yes. Yes,’ he whispered, ‘won’t be long. I’ll pop up in a minute.
Ha, ha. Coffee’d be great. Any croissants? Mmm. Ok.’ He put the
phone down, turned to face me and quickly readjusted his features
until they settled on the sympathetic mien he’d probably practised in
the executive washroom mirror.
‘Is that how you pleaded for me? Over a nice plate of  flaky pastry?’ ‘Stop it Mike.’
‘But I’ve got kids and a wife and a mortgage…all that shit. What am
I going to do? I’m forty-two.’ It was lame, after the event. It wasn’t
going to help.
‘We’ve put together a really good package. Six months’ salary. And you can keep the gym membership until the end of  the year. Uh?’
‘Great. I’ll jog to the bankruptcy court. My God, Pete. Six months’ money? After all these years?’
‘And…you can keep the car.’
He’d obviously kept that up his sleeve in case I had the temerity to whinge. Hardly a clincher. ‘Oh, magnificent. Can’t afford to fill it up, but maybe I can fold the seats down and move in when the Nationwide forecloses on my fucking mortgage.’
‘You’ll find something in no time. You’re a good man.’
‘Look, fuck the package. Why not reduce my basic, load it in favour
of  commission? It’ll motivate me. Maybe that’s what I’ve been
‘My hands are tied Mike.’
My mouth opened but nothing came out. I was all done begging. I
gulped in some air and whimpered, ‘But I’m forty-two.’
    ‘What about Lisa? She’s earning good money, isn’t she? You’re not going to starve.’
Which was true, of course. My financial protestations were born
of shock, indignation, humiliation, not the facts. Lisa comfortably
out-earned me; had done for years. Maybe that made me easier to


Simon Lipson
get rid of. But I still needed a reason to get up in the morning. And I was only forty-two. Did I mention that?
‘That’s it for me. Who wants someone of  my age in this game?’ ‘The references will be great and…’.
‘Yeah? Michael Kenton worked for this company for 17 years. He is
reliable, capable, trustworthy and diligent. That’s why we got rid of
‘No-one’s going to take that inference. People in the business know it’s tough. The competition’s horrendous. There are new companies sprouting up as we speak, ready to undercut us.’
‘I know,’ I muttered, ‘I know.’
‘Hey, and…tell you what, I’ll see if  I can have a word with David
Lewis at Crack-IT. I heard he was after someone experienced on the
technical side.’
‘Yeah, right,’ I sulked.
‘That’d be perfect for you. Maybe sales isn’t your thing any more. You were always a techie at heart.’
‘Yeah.’ I squeaked up off  the armchair and gestured at the door. ‘I might as well…’
Pete laced a smile with his best approximation of  tragic empathy and put his arm around me, but felt immediately uncomfortable and turned it into a stilted pat on the shoulder.
I trudged out and slunk along the corridor, dead man walking, until
I reached my office. It already looked deserted. There was no point
sitting down, no point settling into my comfortable little kingdom;
better to clear it out and clear off. I rifled through my desk drawers,
finding all sorts of  items I’d forgotten I had - a liveried letter opener,
my Top Fee Earner plaque from 1998, a useless, frayed felt tip pen
given to me by Millie who insisted I use it at work. I removed the
family photos from my desk - the gap-toothed ones of  the kids in
their prim, ill-fitting school uniforms, the one of  my parents when
they still had a future, the yellowing shot of  me and Lisa looking lean
and shiny-faced, toasting the camera in a long-forgotten restaurant in
Mykonos. I dithered over the pens, the calculator, the plastic ruler, the
stapler, all of  which were company property, then decided to take the


Song in the Wrong Key
lot. Screw you, Pete, screw all of  you. I win!
I piled my sad little bounty into a couple of  the Tesco bags I kept in
my bottom drawer. It was pathetic. I was pathetic. Two plastic bags
full of  useless crap. Was that all the last 17 years had amounted to? I
stood by the door, bags hanging limply from one hand, empty
briefcase from the other, and looked around the room one last time. I
almost bade it farewell, then realised it was only a bloody room, one in
which I was no longer welcome.
What was I going to tell Lisa?