The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Two Comedians

A Parable

There were two comedians and they were friends, but they were also comedians, and that meant rivalry. They had both started doing comedy at the same time and indeed had both moved to their new city at the same time, and both had attained the same level of success in the city they had come to.

They used to hang out before shows together, the older comedian guzzling Club Maté, a natural energy drink beloved in their new city, and the younger comedian drinking first water and then later, if his gigs went well, the cheapest local beer. ‘It’s shit,’ the younger comedian would say, ‘But I drink it’, and like so many of his private jokes it became part of his act.

Because the comedians were the best comedians in the city which they lived in – which was not it should be said the most famous city, and was in many respects a strange city for them to be in at all, a city which had in fact only recently been unified – they began to tour outside of it. They began to take the trips around the country they had moved to, through its forests and past its lakes on cheap communal buses or fast expensive trains. And as they did, they grew a little older, and it soon became time for their youth to end and for them to move back to the countries which they came from.

After they did this, the older comedian to a big liberal young country, the younger to a small traditional old one, they began to live rather separate lives. The older comedian met a woman, an understanding young woman, and got married, while the younger man worked nights in a basement. And still both of them continued to do comedy, and years passed.

Years passed, and both grew more famous. They each took all the lessons they had learnt in their adopted city and put them into use in their home countries – spontaneity, openness, tolerance. The younger comedian even sometimes still performed shows in the language of their former adopted home. And every year the older comedian came to visit the country of the younger one and they sat together and drank Club Maté like it was old times when they had sat together before shows eating pickles.

But the younger comedian became jealous. Jealousy is a poisonous thing for a comedian, because there are so many opportunities to put it into use. For the young man now came many nights of humiliation and rejection, came many nights of watching others – less talented, his heart cried – succeed. And eventually, finding himself not as successful as he wished in his island home, he began to travel again: to small new countries in the east, to small old countries in the west, to bars in mountains and theatres near the sea. He brought his smart shoes with him and did his little show, and after every performance he took off his smart shoes and put them back in his bag, and shook hands with his hosts and headed off again.

But all the time the older comedian did the same. Sometimes it seemed like that in every little town the younger comedian visited the older one had been there already. ‘Yes,’ his promoter would say, ‘we had him here last month. That guy is so funny.’ Or: ‘We gave him four rounds of applause’, and the younger comedian would bristle at this, never mind that he had got four too. It seemed that the older comedian had been everywhere first, and that every European town had a bollard of that face, that smirking little face of his old friend grown biggest rival.

You might ask at this point why the younger comedian got so jealous, why he wasn’t satisfied at the evident acclaim he was himself receiving. That would show, however, your complete lack of understanding of the natures of comedians, who grow anxious if nobody laughs at the way they say ‘Hello.’

club-mate

Photo by Christo under CC 4.0

One day in a restaurant eating dim sum in an industrial town in Europe’s east, he saw a documentary about the coldest part of the world, the North Pole, where seals and Eskimos congregate, and a scheme was born within him. He would go there, or as near as he could! He would go there and do a show and would be for once in his life indisputably first! With that kind of publicity he would surely settle the rivalry once and for all.

It wasn’t too hard to arrange – in the big city on the little island somebody always knew someone, even so far away. And soon he was booked, for two days at a trading settlement a few hundred miles from the most northerly point of the world. He even tried to learn a few phrases of the local Inuit dialect, North Baffin, in case some of the First Peoples of the area came to see him. He planned for the show for months, documenting his physical and comedic preparation in an increasingly popular blog, called, if you must know, ‘Snow Jokes’.

It was summer when the younger comedian flew north. When he landed he took another flight and then finally sailed in a red-hulled boat to the edge of the world. This, he thought, will surely help me with my future plans. This will give me inner peace and anecdotes to tell the beautiful woman who will surely one day come into my life.

The ship dropped him off at the settlement and for its part continued on north. When he disembarked, the locals were waiting beneath a banner for him, for him, so deeply honoured were they apparently to have him there. The Mayor of the settlement, Brian, self-proclaimed promoter of ‘The World’s Most Northerly Comedy Night’, greeted and embraced him warmly, almost in tears that he had come. The first show would be tomorrow night; for now, they took him to a wooden hut, where, under the clear freezing sky in a vast darkness, he slept like a newly-minted child.

In the morning he walked on the ice, and met the ice fisherman, who showed him how they did it, and took him out to see the walruses and whales.

Then after his dining on tinned fish and condensed milk it was show time already. He took out his sound recorder and his shoes and a bottle of Club Maté, with which he took a selfie. He stood in the frost and felt himself growing up at last. Mayor Brian came in, asking: ‘Are you ready?’ and walked with him to the venue. It was amazing – they had built a giant igloo and from all around people had come and were waiting seated there. Mayor Brian warmed up the audience with some local material, about why sea lions were funny and what he thought of his now ex-wife.

So here he was at the Arctic. While he waited to go on he looked over the rows of locals, thin-haired researchers and fur-pelted hunters who had come to see this, his most adventurous show to date. Would he do his Obama joke? What about his song about having kids? And as he contemplated this he noticed one of the igloo’s central pillars, on which a photograph had been stuck, and which he almost couldn’t bear to see.

The photo showed a man stood with Brian, his arm around him and a date – just one month previously. The man was drinking a beer and smiling, and behind him the massed ranks of an audience – a very big audience – were sitting filling this same fake igloo. His rival wore the smile of a comedian who was big enough to play a secret show at the Arctic.

Brian was finishing the material about his now ex-wife. Having done so, he placed the microphone gently back in the stand, and gestured to the younger comedian. ‘We’re ready for you now!’

The younger man held frozen a moment before, after a brief moment of sadness, going on stage to perform with great brilliance for the next two hours.

Later, both comedians died.

igloo

Photo by Ansgar Walk. Licensed under CC by 2.5.

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‘When Daddy Punched the Bear’

I remember the day like it were yesterday; myself, my sister, and my brother Engelbert or as we knew him, Angelic Bert. There we sat on the picnic cloth in the grounds of our stately home, which Daddy had recently purchased on eBay. The only sounds were Englbert peeling a pork pie – it was a weird habit of his, to denude and then suck apart the residual pork filling – and my sister quietly turning the pages of her book. Mummy and Daddy, still deeply in love in this, their eighth year of marriage, looked at each other adoringly above the eggs and the coffee.

Suddenly, the bear emerged from the woods, roaring and growling and being generally bear-like. For some reason its neck had been bound with a red handkerchief, almost cowboyesque in its tying, and perhaps that had contributed to its aggrieved air. The bear was going fucking nuts, and quite soon it was right next to our family, stomping and rasping and coming perilously close to knocking over a pot of gherkins.

As you can imagine, we children reacted with terror, leaping into each other’s arms in a small cluster of fear and, in Bert’s case, masticated pork. We shot troubled, frightened eyes to Mummybuns and Daddykins, imploring them to rescue us from the savage beast which had now intruded upon our lunch.

But we had reckoned without Daddy. There he rose, drawing himself up to his full height of five-foot ten, courageous and comfortable-looking in chinos and an M&S checked shirt, to punch that bear right in its fucking face. ‘Take that, you cunt!’ he yelled. It was the first time I had heard the word.

Stunned, the bear bellowed and cantered back to the woods, its head and back bending as it leapt into the thicket. Gradually the weeping and sobbing faded and we children made our way apart from each other once again. Mummy moved to Daddy with a devotion bordering on erotic mania, and Daddy spoke. ‘Now,’ he said, regaining his composure and the mustard knife, ‘We are all going to enjoy our picnic.’

800px-Flemish_Flag_(8610710241)

‘I Am a Flemish Nationalist’

I am a Flemish nationalist. I believe in the independence of Flanders, the need of the Flems to liberate themselves from the Wallonian yoke, and the supremacy of Flemish business and cultural practice. If the world were more like Flanders, it would be a measurably better place – but as it is, the part of the world which is most Flanderian, Flanders, should be allowed to exult in its own sheer Flemishness, and so doing prove a beacon amongst the nations.

The walls of my house are coloured gold and black, and decorated with hand-carved lions. I begin each morning with a chorus of De Vlaamse Leeuw, our national hymn, before a breakfast heap of the finest Ghent chocolates. I read exclusively Flemish nationalist authors of the early 20th century, and my daily diet consists entirely of pure beer and fries, although I am careful to consume only potatoes sourced from Flemish soil, though I do like French mustard. Over my buttocks spreads a tattoo of Eddie Merckx, five times Tour de France winner, and on my wall a framed photograph of myself with Jan Jambon, the Belgian Interior Minister. His name in English is Jan Ham – but such trivialities do not amuse me.

My children, Jan and Agnes, have also been reared as strident Flemish nationalists. It was on only his fifth birthday that Jan brought an entire room of assembled relatives to tears with his recital of the 19th-century nationalist poet K. L. Ledeganck’s ‘Zegepraal van’s Lands onafhankelijkheid’ (‘Our country’s triumphant independence’), all 150 lines learnt by heart. How we wept! Then my beloved Agnes sang us a medley of dEUS songs, accompanying herself on the electric viola; really, how could we fail to cry further? Sadly I was forced to leave my wife as, during the recent World Cup, she began supporting the country of Belgium, a nation I do not recognize. I had no choice but to remove both her and a six-metre Belgian flag from my apartment, and I have no idea as to her current whereabouts.

I must mention, of course, I have never lived in, been to or even intend to visit Flanders. In fact I live quite happily in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My neighbours by now know to leave me well alone, and I am able to stay fully in touch with Flemish culture via a variety of online streaming services. Not that, of course, I pay for them: I may be a diehard Flemish nationalist, but I’m not a fool.

Saussure_Signifie-Signifiant

There was a problem with a word

The phone rang.

‘Major?’

‘Yes?’

‘Can you hear me? It’s Collins sir, Sergeant Collins.’

‘Oh right. How can I help sergeant?’

‘Well sir, we have a bit of a problem.’

‘Of course; as your commanding officer, I’m always here to listen. Even at this ungodly hour.’

‘I must say sir that’s very reassuring. It’s about a word sir.’

‘Yes?’

‘A word sir. It appears to have stopped working.’

‘What does that mean sergeant?’

‘Well – there’s no easy way to explain it. I mean, that’s the problem. Sir, you know the liquid you drink.’

‘What?’

‘The liquid that you drink to survive.’

‘Water?’

‘Yes, that’s exactly it Major, exactly that. Well – it’s the word sir. It’s stopped working. I mean, the concept is still understood. But when you just say the word sir, it doesn’t mean anything to the men anymore. The – uh – signifier has become detached from the signified.’

‘Speak English, Collins!’

‘I’m trying to sir but the men no longer seem to understand it. At least that one word. And a few others too, actually. Like – lace curtains. That’s not so important down here, not an item coming up so much in conversation, just like Twister, marsupial and pail, which are also all not working. But it’s really the word water which is causing all the problems.’

‘Well – alright… What on earth do you expect me to do about it?’

‘I don’t know sir. I thought you might have some advice.’

‘Advice. You want advice. Have you tried, ah, pointing at things?’

‘That’s what we’re doing sir. But that’s not always practical. You can’t do that in the middle of an engagement with the enemy sir, you might get your bloody arm off!’

‘Then what about using a verb? To drink or even as a noun phrase, can I have a drink?’

‘Sure sir but a drink could be anything. I mean, you could ask for a drink and be given a coffee, when actually what you wanted is – you know. That clear, essential liquid.’

‘I see. I can well imagine how this is something of a problem.’ There was a long pause. ‘How about – well, how about a new word?’

‘New word sir?’

‘Yes, yes, a new word. It’d have to be one which no-one has used before. Like – let’s see – snupup.’

‘Snupap sir?’

‘I said snupup sergeant. Snup-up.’

‘And what does that mean?’

‘It means – well, it means that vital clear liquid all drink to survive. And which our bodies are composed of up to about 60%.’

‘Right. Snapup.’

‘Yes, snapup, snupup, whatever.’

‘Right you are sir. I’ll take that back to the men and we’ll give it a go. Snupap! Thank you so much sir. I knew you’d help.’

‘It’s late, sergeant. Is there anything else?’

‘Yes sir – there is one more thing.’

‘Yes?’

‘We appear to be running out of snupup.’

 

Proposal For The Second English Civil War

Angus Kirk Fight

Photo from Angus Kirk. Licenced under CC by 2.0.

What a tremendous pickle this country has got itself into. Eighteen months on from that referendum the UK remains hopelessly divided, between young and old, north and south, university graduates and people who hate them. Our lamentable political class are circling each other like ducks with bread up their bumholes and as for our press – well, those guys are currently exploring the previously unheralded territory between fascism and music hall. Our country is going to the dogs who we will be shortly forced to eat.

In this context, please allow me – a balding 35-year old from Nottingham and frequently-rejected supplicant to the metropolitan elite – to propose my own solution. In my view, there’s nothing about our current collective national imbroglio that a good old-fashioned English Civil War wouldn’t fix.

It seems so obvious when you think about it. After all, in such matters, England has always been ahead of the continent. We got to our own previous Civil War as early as the 1640s, a full three hundred years before our Spanish neighbours. Typical Spanish idleness! Plus we already have all the conditions in place for our society-destroying reboot. We have two bitterly opposed camps, one of which advocates parliamentary sovereignty regardless of its human cost, and another of disorganized loyalists to a recently-toppled regime. Just like the Royalists of old, with their sympathies to continental ‘Popery’, the Remain masses are seen as open to foreign ideas to a suspicious degree, all in good contrast with the stout, bitter-drinking Roundheads of Brexit. And just like Cromwell’s lot, the Brexit bunch seem to have no qualms about threatening the actual really-existing Parliament when it disobeys them.

Clearly the New English Civil War will be a little different from the first. For example this time around, executing our monarch is unlikely to resolve many issues and may even complicate them. Also, unlike last time, Scotland and London are firmly in the hands of loyalists to the ancien regime, stocked as they are by an unholy alliance of freelance creatives, German IT consultants, and Polish people who can fix things. Just like back then though the Parliamentarians base their success on extraordinary victories in places no-one has ever heard of: What, for example, is Spalding? To communicate this blend of historical similarity and difference, I suggest supporters of the EU retain the previous term Cavaliers, while Brexit puritans are from now known as Blockheads. After all we are currently being told Brexit will allow us to diverge and harmonize at the same time.

How the war will go is anyone’s guess. On one hand, the New Cavaliers have youth on the side; on the other they, with their hipster beards, need to caffeinate constantly and inability to commit to long-term relationships, look far from battle ready. In contrast the Blockheads are clearly an older army – but one brief clip from Question Time tells you they’re one more than ready to kill. Indeed are actively looking for an excuse to do so. As battle is joined, can we see really the cosseted denizens of Richmond Park or Cambridge putting up much resistance to pitchfork-wielding northern pensioners? On the other hands – if the New Cavaliers destroy Grimsby, how will we be able to tell?

In keeping with modern sensibilities I suggest the war be pacific in nature. Instead of guns, each side will be armed with symbolic weaponry. On the pro-EU side, soldiers will carry yards of ‘Brussels Red Tape’, used to baffle and tether their foes (until the need for a response creates the even more nightmarish British Red Tape, able to induce migraines from over two years away). For their part, the Leave hordes will drench enemies of the people from water guns mounted on white vans filled with lashings and lashings of weak English lager supplied by General JD Wetherspoon. Fighting will be intense, but bloodless; the clash of croissant on powerful non-EU regulated vacuum cleaner, the battlefield ringing with the ‘God Save the Queen’ against the pinging of the Duolingo app. War is no reason to neglect your language learning! Once a soldier is fallen, either a Cavalier from exhaustion at making the same two repeated arguments over a period of many years without any response or, in the case of the Blockheads, chlorinated-chicken poisoning, they are to be daubed with a symbol of their hated foe. This will either be a tiny Euro sign or a pound sterling symbol, with the total of such currency symbols then counted at the end of the battle to determine the overall winner. However before said counting, 18% of pound sterling’s value will be deleted, and this will be subject to further depreciation over the course of the war. To counter this, Leave commanders will deny that it is even happening.

Having a good old-fashioned internecine conflict is simply the honourable British thing to do. To this end I plan to raise the New Cavalier standard on March 30 at London’s Old Street roundabout, after which we will have a rare vinyl auction followed by a live DJ set from Gina Miller. The same day, a similar Blockhead ceremony will take place at Barnsley Town Hall, after which there’ll be ham sandwiches and a public execution. As I look out of the rows of boyish man-buns and Chinese-character tats I’ll be better able to assess the chances of those who wear the Blue and Gold. And if we Cavaliers are to lose again we can always console ourselves that the last time parliamentary sovereignty became a moral absolute in English politics its advocates only held onto power eleven years before everyone got thoroughly sick of them and their joyless bullshit. Victory or no, we Cavaliers can march on regardless to 2027 when a delegation to Brussels will be dispatched to solicit our re-entry to the bloc, and the most tremendous piss-up held for the UK’s ecstatic EU Restoration. The bonfires of blue passports will burn all night.

Two politicians talk about God

This poem was written in 2012.

 

Cameron and Clegg at Downing street,

Last meeting before Christmas done.

Nick puts on his coat to leave

And Cameron stops him with ‘Nick.’

‘Hmm?’ ‘Just one thing, chum, a question –

Do you believe in God?’

A pause, and Clegg answers hesitantly,

‘Actually I don’t. Since my youth I’ve been an atheist

I’ve never had much use

For bells and smells and promises

Which life itself can’t keep. I read

The works of Samuel Beckett, who would’ve

Prayed to God but -’

‘He doesn’t exist,’ says Cameron.

Then Clegg: ‘Surprised you know the quote.

I don’t believe in God, but

In the interests of full disclosure I should state

My sons are being raised Catholic.’

Nick goes further into his coat, then farther

To the door; at which point he turns, seeing

David stood in the room’s middle

Blowing his cheeks out,

Face puffy and red-eyed

From tiredness and overwork.

‘And you?’ after a moment Nick asks.

‘Oh it comes and goes.

I like to read the Bible…

I’m a cultural Christian…

But I wouldn’t say I believe.

Increasingly I find in meetings

My mind hovers above the fray,

In our interminable monetary discussions

I end up somewhere else.

The scene I see is seashores

And families playing there;

Ice cream on children’s faces,

Wasps in the orange juice.

I believe, I think I realize,

In a very British God –

A kind of aquatic protector

Who keeps this island safe.

I operate in a basic wavering

Position of vague belief;

You could say I’m a coalition

Of certainty and doubt.’

Nick nods and turns back to the door,

Then holds just another tick.

‘We should talk about these things more often,

It might help us win the day.’

Cameron gives a half-smile then says, at last

‘Give my love to your family

And enjoy the Christmas break.’

Cameron Clegg

Image Credit: The Cabinet Office.

Registers

Doctor. So, Fred, what seems to be the problem?

Patient. It’s my knee doctor, it’s gone all creaky-weaky.

Pause.

Doctor. You’re having mobility issues?

Patient. Yes, when I go bendy-wendy my knee goes poppy-pop-pop.

Doctor. I see, ah. Perhaps you would like to demonstrate for me.

Pause.

Demonstrate?

Patient. Oh, right, demonstrate.

The patient does.

Doctor. Ah yes, I do see what you mean.

Patient. You

can hear it?                        Doctor. I can hear it.

Patient. Poppy-pop.

Doctor. Yes, exactly, popp-itsy-pop. And tell me – do you have to miturcate more?

Patient. What?

Doctor. Do you have to go more widdly-diddly?

Patient. Widdly… diddly?

Doctor. Er… Piddly… widdly?

Patient. Oh yes, I have to go piddly-widdly in the nighty-wighty. Sometimes more than three times!

Doctor. And what about flatulence?

Patient. Flat-u-lens?

Doctor. Bum pops?

Patient. Oh yes Doctor, lots of bum pops. Pfff! Bwf! Bfff.

Doctor. Bum pops, right, frequent, and bum drops? What about those?

Patient. Yes Doctor. Very big bum pops. Big stinky! Poooo! Bummmm!

Doctor. Well, you’ve given me a lot of clues. You’ve got a creaky-weaky knee that goes pop-pop when you bendy-wendy, you need to go piddly-widdly in the nighty-wighty, you’ve bum pops and big stinky bum drops, and also marked cognitive degeneration. Yes, it’s quite clear what’s happening here. You’re getting older.

Patient. Doctor is it serious?

Doctor. In the sense that anything is. Pretty soon you you’ll be deady-weddy, Freddy. Deady-weddy-forevs-no-teddy-Freddy. No more bum pops or piddle-dee-diddle for you; you friend are going to die.