The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Uncategorized

An absurd election

The best analogy I could make for this British election is that it is like a patient who has received a diagnosis. They have a terminal disease, but it is not yet visible, so they begin to make up a vast series of plans which they will in all probability never be able to realize, or indeed afford; at other times they are defiant and resolved to beat the illness. In reality their later death – evident for now in only the odd palpable niggle – is inevitable, but the patient, and those who love it, cannot bring themselves to spoil this period, perhaps its last one before reality bites, by mentioning the fact.

So the central absurdity of calling an election because of Brexit but never discussing Brexit, or if doing so, employing only the most vapid terms, such as our Prime Minister’s claim that if we only believe in Brexit enough everything will be alright. Presumably we have to click our heels together three times while doing so. Post-Brexit Britain may indeed be like Oz, only this time Scarecrows lose even more brains and the Yellow Brick Road is made of horseshit. Such fantastical stories are now, to the extent that it can be said to have anything so rigid, the backbone of British politics. The parties and their supporters seemed locked in curious reveries of historical revival, either 19th-century nationalism, or the protective huddle of the post-war settlement; presumably these latter are people for whom the 1950s were a glamorous time. It seems to me sometimes that there is no period of British history sufficently dreary to not at some point give birth to a nostalgia industry.

Nonetheless there are still some of us living on this island who care deeply about Brexit. There are people for whom a Britain outside the EU presents a fundamental challenge to their identity. Of course, Brexit fans, ever reliable in their delivery of their three or four arguments, will say that Europe and the EU are two different things. This is true. But to my particular tribe, the EU is first of all a tool to allow us to easily live our lives as Europeans; to travel, study, and work, across Europe’s countries, to deepen our understanding of the continent.

When I say my tribe, which one do I mean? My tribe is perhaps defined as being that of the people who are not particularly keen on the idea of tribes. Who cross between cultures, who exchange, who are proud citizens of the world. We are, by dint of the complexity of such identities, small in number, but we do nonetheless have the right to represent ourselves and be represented. We have a shared knowledge of Europe which binds us and breeds our closeness, and to us, this British election and its language seems more foreign than living abroad. We have more in common with Emmanuel Macron than Theresa May. We find the language of being ‘pro-Europe’ very strange, because Europe is just the place we live in, with all its drawbacks and positives. How can you be ‘pro’ or ‘con’ a geographical region?

I admit freely that my tribe’s cosmopolitan identity is an elitist one. I myself was only able to move to Germany as a young man thanks to subsidies from my parents for language courses and rent. Clearly, not enough people in this country enjoyed similar opportunities, or they would never have voted to squander ones so precious. If the EU is an attempt to create transnational solidarity between European citizens, it has not, for most people in the UK, worked. But still – our elitist identity is still an identity, and an identity is how you make sense of the world. And what I am asking myself at this election is, as no one else is going to, What is the future of this, my tribe, in the UK?

In the recent Dutch election there was a party called ‘Denk’, formed to represent immigrants and their rights by immigrants themselves. If ‘Denk’ were running in the UK it would have my vote in a flash, not just because any party which translates as ‘Think’ would be a welcome addition to the British political scene. At a basic level, I want my country to start being kinder to immigrants, to stop demonizing them, to become more welcoming again. Even more than being in or out of the EU, I realize, I want to live in a country which welcomes foreigners, and certainly not one that seems to believe it has nothing to learn from them. I want to live somewhere open to the world.

On offer is the contrary. The immigration crackdown the Tories propose is predictably draconian but nowhere more so than in its proposal to raise income thresholds for marriage spousal visas for non-EU citizens from their current, ridiculous level of 18.6 thousand a year, a sum that is to be earned solely by the party who is a British national. The idea that only by earning more than a particular amount am I allowed to marry the person I want is both absurd and cruel. The undermining of the right to marriage alone deserves to lose the Tories the election; conversely, Labour, which proposes to abolish the thresholds, deserves to win on that basis. Such harsh immigration laws are a calculated insult to my tribe: ‘How dare you fuck foreign!’, they say. They make many of my us, I am sure, desperate to take our business elsewhere; our taxes, our children, and our expertise.

Meanwhile, the absurd election continues. Some promise vast sums of public money the coming economic contraction will render impossible; others boast of a crackdown on the workers that the new country will desperately need to even just stay afloat. Hard facts are scant, and as for serious thinking; well, let’s just say that there’s never been a better time in England to be an utter bonehead. Hard, seeing this, not to feel profoundly alienated, and to feel little love for a country threatening to become both the only country in Europe my tribe would never want to live in, and the only place we will be allowed to. If we do indeed leave our country, as the online Brexit army frequently request of us, it’s hard not to see British life in our absence becoming even more insular and adrift, more snug in its monolingualism, hostility and ignorance. Many of us feel this to be precisely the reason we should stay. But that means accepting that the country we want to live in, Britain in the EU, is not going to exist anymore.

Europe goes on. Recently I was in Brussels when I saw a shop selling EU memorabilia. I went inside and bought a small EU bracelet, and a flag. I was thinking that as I ordered the flag, using the French which I taught myself and practiced by working across the continent this gesture was, for a middle-class bloke from Nottingham, an act of resistance of sorts. Of course, what it in fact was identity politics, albeit the identity politics of an elite. It was an elite that a great many people and not quite enough of them had been offered the chance to enter. In Britain our elite identity, in its complexity, has been rejected. But once you had joined this elite, there was no going back. It was who you were.

Union_Jack_and_the_european_flag

Photo by Dave Kellman on a Creative Commons License 2.0.

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‘The Comedian’

Can Huang, a documentary filmmaker in London, made this lovely short film about me. I think it ably captures the melancholy of the London open mic circuit! Thanks to G&B Comedy and Memoirs of the Geezer for locations.

Gaspard

Recently I was in Europe waiting for a bus, in one of the lengthy journeys which have punctuated my thirties. I was in Lille, the bus was very late, and I noticed that waiting with me – in the tiny waiting area, no more than a dias above an elevator – was a French family. They were a grandmother, a granddad and two kids, a boy and a girl. As other buses came and went, it gradually became clear that we were all waiting for the same bus to London.

Eventually, the bus did arrive, and even late we had to change onto another bus at Calais. Once the disarray of relocation had settled, I found myself sat next to the boy from that family, who, I deduced by his grandmother’s frequent address, was called Gaspard. First of all Gaspard was sat near the window, but after we went through customs twice, I ended up there. I asked the returning young man, ‘Vous voulez à la fenêtre?’ and Gaspard said it was no problem, which disposed me to him no end.

We made it through that tunnel. Occasionally, the grandmother would ask Gaspard if he was alright, and he would say he was; an hour passed, and when I looked over next Gaspard was sleeping. I looked down on him, this well-dressed and exhausted figure, and wrote him a poem.

 

Gaspard, tu dors.

Le monde est grand

Et tu sais bien que

Tu auras beaucoup à faire.

Gaspard, tu dors.

Tu as bien raison.

 

Doing this amused me. And with the poem being so simple, I decided to have another go at it in German.

 

Kaspar, du schläfst.

Die Welt ist ja groß und

Du weiß schon, dass

Du viel tun wirst.

Kaspar, du schläfst.

Du hast wohl recht.

 

And, as I was still amusing myself, I tried it in English.

 

Cuthbert, you sleep.

The world’s so big and

You’re well aware

You’ll have a lot to do.

Cuthbert, you sleep.

That’s probably right.

 

That was enough for now. But perhaps others might want to try translating the poem into their languages? It’s called ‘Gaspard’.

Approaching London 0n 26.02.2017.

Entering London 0n 26.02.2017.

 

Later we approached London in a storm. The night was vast and no ideas counted; I saw pubs dashed by rain and blistered neon. I thought, I want nothing more than to be here, seeing this, and in some way this child’s presence is part of my feeling. For his part, of course, it is unlikely he will ever read this tribute or indeed even know of its or remember my existence. Still he was cool guy. When we finally arrived I wished him ‘un beau temps a Londres.’ ‘À vous aussi’, he replied, to you too.

*

In a delightful addendum to the story, my friend Elo Zobel has now provided an Estonian version. Tänan väga, Elo.

Kaspar, sa magad

Maailm on suur

Ja sa tead et sa pead

Palju

Kaspar, sa magad

Ja nii ongi hea.

‘The giants’

I dreamt a sadness deep as pillows
These giant pillows on which giants slept.
And when the giants woke they felt the sadness
And, nodding sadly, wept.

My heart – a broken thing
And yours, a courgette.
The giants waited outside the windows
Of our fifteenth-floor apartment.

As the day went on there was a deepening
Of the way I felt about you,
No almanac recorded this, and what the giants sang
Simply wasn’t true.

I cannot say it. Can you say it?
It seems too profoundly deep to say.
Let the giants say it, say it, say it!
Ah but those giants have gone away.

Herne Hill

A winter’s tale

I can see the young man from down the street, stood in his black woolly hat outside, and I’m smiling as I approach the bar, saying ‘Darius, right?’, and the younger guy replies, with a big smile, ‘Everyone calls me Chisel. You’re James?’

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Good to meet you.’

‘Yeah man. You come far?’

‘Hackney.’

‘That’s far!’

‘Well, it wasn’t too bad. Let’s get out of the cold.’

We move inside the bar. It’s long, thin, spotlessly clean – called Nigel’s, it’s an American-style bar. Probably even bigger than that, because at the end of the bar is the largest drinks selection I’ve ever seen. Really; rows on shiny rows of bottles, on crystal shelves before a background of silver glass. And the selection! You’ve got a whole row of Japanese whiskies, every vodka imaginable, golden rums in tall bottles. And in front of all this the bartender, presumably Nigel, resplendent in all black with a tea towel over his shoulder. One of those men who is just the right height.

‘What do you want?’

‘A glass of tap water,’ I say.

The bartender, actually called Derek, pours me one. I look to him and smile; ‘Amazing place you’ve got here. I’ll have one of your vodkas later, but I don’t drink before gigs.’

‘We should have a few people down here later, it’s my first night running this,’ says Chisel. At the moment there is no one in the bar apart from a blonde man in a cagoule reading and looking vaguely ill.

‘Yeah – I looked on the website – Furious Mike used to run this gig right?’

‘He did. Then he gave it to me. But I don’t speak to him no more. I can’t be dealing with him, man. All that ego. How long you been gigging, anyway?’

‘Oh, a long time.’

‘Yeah? How long?’

‘Well – in London not so long.’ I can’t be bothered to tell the story; how I lived abroad for some years, how I worked professionally there, how I feel constantly chided and humiliated in having to start again. ‘I’m doing at lot at the moment though.’

‘Yeah – where’d you gig?’

‘Oh, TPT, Sorcerer, Uncle Buncle.’

‘Do you do the Cave?’

‘I do but – it’s a bringer, right. Bringers are difficult.’

A bringer show is when you have to bring a guest in order to perform, ensuring that there’s audience. It could be worse – other gigs demanded you actually paid to perform.

‘I never won the little cup there though. Do you do the Gong show? I do it man. I’ve beaten it before – I’ve got to the final. But in the final you have to do five full minutes and man, it’s hard. I want to get back there and beat the gong. But you have to do the other rounds again.’

‘It’s like a computer game,’ I say and, ‘Excuse me. I have to go to the toilet.’

‘It’s back there,’ says Derek, the bartender.

More drinks

                                     Edwin Land/Creative Commons

I move to the toilet, again spotlessly clean, and take a seat. It’s a cramped room, with the walls decorated with pictures of black icons; Obama, Martin Luther King, John Coltrane. And here I am, a pasty-white bloke from Nottingham taking a shit beneath these distinguished eyes. I take a look at my hand, which is forced right up to me, and note the cigarette burn near the knuckle. It’s hard for me to fathom now that I would deliberately damage myself like that, especially as an increasing part of my mental energy is in trying to work out I preserve my body so it fights on for a few decades more. I wipe, flush, and clean my hands.

When I return to the main bar the book reader has gone but two new men have arrived. One of them is a muscular black man in a puffer jacket and the other a long-haired, yellow-tinged man wearing what looks like fishing gear. They’re drinking, Puffer Jacket in silence and Fisherman with a big smile and enthusiastically talking to the barmaid. The staff has changed, too: Derek has been replaced by a barmaid, Sharma, tall, gamine and dressed in black.

But I’m not quite ready to join the drinking yet. I’m still holding a little bit of my brain open to the possibility that there will actually be a show tonight. I’m not too bothered; as ever after a long trip to a gig, I feel like I’ve already achieved something by getting there. Chisel sees me sitting there and says, perhaps too anxiously, ‘Don’t worry if no-one shows up man. I’ll buy you a drink.’

I’ve moved to a corner and am sitting in the chairs where the book reader had been. I reach into my comedian’s bag – shoes, an audio recorder, clean socks – and take out my notebook. And then I spend thirty minutes sitting there thinking about my life, while all the while Chisel sits at the bar on a stool, seeming to curl up, sink more into himself, seeming to manifest his self-reproach in a tangible physical form.

At five to eight I’ve waited long enough. ‘Chisel. I think I’ll have that drink now.’

It’s a quiet night and Sharma keeps walking over to the Iphone dock to skip songs she doesn’t like and as she returns, Chisel suddenly throws his arms open and flamboyantly declare, ‘Sharma – get this lad a pint!’ Sharma laughs at this, at the goofiness I guess, and moves to take a can of Guinness from the fridge. I am a little disappointed it’s not draught, but then she puts the drink in its glass on a little device which makes a whirling noise and leaves it with an authentic head. It’s pretty neat.

The long-haired American is still there, talking about his having been abroad, hitting on Sharma it’s fair to say. When she turns her back to change the song again – she doesn’t like this one – we fall into a moment together. He asks me what I do with my life, and I say, no, not comedy, no, although I’d like to. And I repeat the question to him to which he replies that he’s retired.

Retired? I can’t believe it, I say, and ask him how old he is.

‘Guess.’

I look at him; his skin looks fresh, his hair still full of colour, and not curled towards a bald spot like my good self.

‘Er – you must be at the most 50.’

’50? 50?! 50?’

‘Sorry. I only guessed 50 because it was the earliest possible age I could imagine somebody retiring at. I don’t think you look anywhere near that old. How old are you?’

‘I’m 42.’

‘What did you work in?’

‘I’m in IT. People retire really young in IT. I mean, what’s the point in paying an older guy to do it when you can get a younger guy to at half the cost. You know the game Minecraft, yeah, well the guy who made that came retired at twenty. Having already made several million dollars.’ His phone is making a quiet bleeping; he raises it to eyeshot. ‘Sorry – my wife.’

‘So you’re married?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Have kids?’

‘No.’

‘And your wife’s cool with that, she doesn’t want to have kids either?’

‘Yeah it’s fine.’

I raise a hand. ‘So you’ve retired, made money, got a beautiful wife who loves you and doesn’t want any kids. Pretty much got it worked out, haven’t you?’

‘I guess,’ says the man, looking ahead of himself. ‘Another beer!’ he shouts to Sharma who turns back smiling. ‘Do you want a beer?’ he says to me.

‘I’ll have a shot,’ I say.

‘What kind of a shot?’

‘I’ll have a vodka,’ I say.

The vodka comes and I slam it down but that’s not enough for the American – he’s told me his name by now, but I’ve forgotten it and am too embarrassed to ask again. He wants me to try the bar’s own special vodka, which has apparently, according to his hype, finished a couple of other customers off; Sharma is already slicing an orange and there’s a genuine slight uptick in interest from Chisel and Puffer Jacket.

There are now four slices of orange in front of me and a rusty-looking shot. I’ve never been very good at working out why people are doing things for me, but there we are: I neck the shot. There is some burn, mainly on the lips, but I’ve had worse. I ride out the swellings of heat and think that it’d be good to have a cool drink, at which point I look to the oranges and all becomes clear. I pop them one by one into my mouth, sucking the coolness home.

They all seem satisfied with how I dealt with the shot – I did my best to summon a suitably stoic air, which is quite easy for a deadpan comedian. The American slaps my back gently and says, ‘It’s good right? You want another?’ Apparently there’s another version, one grade hotter. I assent with a smiling nod, and the little ritual is repeated: Sharma, the oranges, and the agonizing gulp.

‘It’s good stuff,’ I say with deliberation.

‘Right? It’s cleansing right? It’s like a drug.’

‘Should I –‘

‘No, it’s fine, I’ll get this,’ says the Yank. ‘You’re family now, right?’

‘Well,’ I say, ‘I guess.’

Head on a can

delta_avi_delta/Creative Commons

The conversation continues, and the long-haired man is talking about Florida, and carnival there. One time apparently a Dutch friend had visited and gone missing and they’d found him a few days later lying in the street . Carnival in Florida was pretty crazy, apparently, though I couldn’t really imagine that. There was something in the way that the man was making a big fuss about having hung out with a group of lesbians once that seemed too forced to have any genuine craziness behind it. ‘They hunt in packs,’ says the retiree, ‘and they know how to get the best girls.’

‘It’s true, they try to turn you,’ says Sharma. ‘I have a friend who’s one and she was talking to me once, and she just put her hand on my bum, just went out and did it. I was like, Oh my days!’

Anyway, there was a way to talk about people of different sexual orientations, and this wasn’t it; it was all too on the nose.

There were other things that people like at carnival and beyond was some kind of mixture of heroin and cocaine, know as Rosewater or something, or was it Strawberry Dream, which the men keep in lockets around their necks and which apparently offers a smooth and palatable high. The long-haired man had an enthusiasm for drugs and particularly hallucinogens, which I shared to a certain extent, though I’d never graduated from mushrooms to acid despite an abiding interest in doing so. Perhaps I was stung by the memory of a young man I’d met at a New Year’s party once, sitting bug-eyed in a long-crowded room, who responded, on my asking him whether he was having a good time, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t like the idea of not knowing whether I was having a good time or not.

To tell the truth, drugs didn’t interest me much, and I had got to a stage in my life where I was learning that that was okay, and also, that not much interested me, really, and that like a child I could be happy just sitting there with a glass of water, staring into space. I had so much to remember.

I did like Guinness though and I was happy when Chisel elected to buy me another one as there were only a few coins in my purse. By now his body language was bordering on wretched; he was engaged in visible self-reproach. This failed comedy night, which had been entrusted to him by an established act, with whom he had also fallen out – it was all stacked up against him. But more than that, he was telling me, and as he did I suddenly felt the cold outside – more than that, he had been without a room and sleeping on friends’ couches, here and there, for a few days at a time, for over a year now. Work seemed an issue too. He’d beaten the gong, and that kept him going, but he was in trouble.

I felt sympathy for Chisel, who slumped before me, talking in a low voice and occasionally checking his phone. I went to have a bit of a chat with Puffer Jacket, whose name was actually Andrew, and as for his work, he’d been an army psychiatrist before that had been decimated by the cuts. There it came again, an intimation of the pitiless government of this country; I’d got to a stage where I realized politics were doing me more harm than good, but they were always there, these intimations. London was so hard – it was like a city made of crystal, a city freezing along its tunnels and roads, like this massive ice palace full of frozen feather beds.

Suddenly it was time to go; there was no warning, time had just run out, I was already late. Hackney was far away, and when I said I had to get back there was general agreement that I had to leave now, because the last train from Herne Hill was very soon, just after half-ten. It was already half-ten. Well, I had definitely had a good time; I looked around the lovely, personable bar, the lights a little blistered by alcohol now. Chisel was gone, but Puffer Jacket, the American and Sharma were still there, and maybe they had a few drinks to go yet. I said goodbye to them all and walked back onto the street.

I walked down the hill feeling both upbeat and a complete failure in life. It was very cold. As I came to the bottom I saw Chisel, together with another young guy; both of them were wearing wooly hats and laughing together with their heads bowed down. I disturbed them – ‘See you later!’ I called, and Chisel looked up and gave me a nice smile. As I passed them both I heard him say to his friend, ascending behind, ‘Nice guy.’

A few days later Chisel sent a message to all the acts that due to creative differences he would no longer be running the Monday night comedy at Nigel’s.

A few days later still he posted up a picture online of his hand holding an unremarkable looking brass key, laid flat upon his palm. With this he wanted to thank everyone for supporting him and keeping faith in him as he moved onto the next stage of his project. It got ninety Likes; it seemed things were finally looking up for Chisel.

Herne Hill

                                  David Howard/Creative Commons