Written for the Guardian Travel Section

I had gone to a friend’s place in the South of France intending to forget my broken heart by writing a comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. Arles, as occupied by Romans and painted by Van Gogh, is an exquisite little town but, for 3 days, all I had done was to moon joylessly around the house sipping brandy. I felt little enthusiasm for France, life, comedy, or anything really. Disconnected. On the third evening it occurred to me that I needed to get out.

So the next day I crossed the Rhone, hired a bicycle and set off South into the broad, even, watery Camargue – home to horses, bulls, mosquitos and many breeds of bird, most famously the flamingo. The flat terrain suited my mood and empty roads smoothed my way. After a couple of hours I spotted a spire on the horizon and turned towards it. The crooked old church was now a crooked old bar, dark and gloomy after the bright blueness outside.

Inside an old lady in black with a sad, distracted air served me a cold beer and a sandwich jambon. Poor old girl, she seemed even glummer than me. I decided to try my French out. ‘Do you ever get flamingos come into this bar?’ I enquired.

She stared at me, totally baffled.

It was not much of a gag (though I was planning to follow it up with a question about them falling over) but it seemed to pole-axe the woman. Flamingos in the bar? What was this peculiar foreigner talking about? Then I saw it dawn on her – it was a joke! She broke into a broad if toothless smile. The thought now tickled her. She started chuckling and I could see that this silly remark by a passing tourist had suddenly, somehow reawakened in her the memory of laughter, that I had, by chance, unlocked something in her. The chuckling gave way to cackling and full bloodied hooting and her bleak introspection seemed to dissolve to reveal a wrinkled but open and beautiful old face. After my lunch she came outside to wave me off as I set off cycling again out into those broad Mediterranean skies. Arriving back in Arles later I sat straight down and started writing.

It is now fifteen years since my cycle in the Camargue and I am preparing for another tour of my solo show (the ‘gentleman’s tour’ – a handful of dates in agreeable places) and I will, wherever possible, stay over after the gig in a nice hotel, breakfast on porridge and kippers the next morning, then spend the day rambling in the surrounding countryside (note to self: get OS maps for Abingdon, Frome, Stratford and Barow). And, at some leafy point along the way, I will no doubt remember once again the encounter with the lady in black, which has become mythic in my mind; that marvellous old woman, laughing, laughing, laughing.

Advice to young comics – something I may have written in the Stage.

A letter has flooded into me from regular reader and part-time stalker David Savage with the following questions:

 

‘Arthur, I am a rookie comic wondering how one sustain a career in comedy and how best to cope with one’s lot in this cruel world?’

 

I do not want to write directly to David since that may invite him to contravene his restraining order but via this column, David, here are my tips for comic longevity and existential maturity.

1.KEEP GOING. It is tough out there. Although the rewards can be great, it is very hard to make your voice heard above the myriad competitors you will face. You must be original and you must work hard, and when you bomb at two open spots in a row you must grit your teeth and step up to the next one with all your spirit intact.

2. DON’T KEEP GOING. If you die on the 3rd one – jack it in man and retrain in IT.

3. GETTING ON TV IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. This is even more the case in the age of the internet. TV will probably want to dilute your talent -not to say traduce it. I knew a young comic once who told me how thrilled she was to be playing a big part in a TV documentary about comedy. The programme, she later learned, was called The World’s Worst Stand Up Comedians.

 4. NEVER READ YOUR REVIEWS. You will make this promise but you will fail and

5. ALWAYS READ YOUR REVIEWS. Accept all the good ones as your rightful due and forget them. The bad ones will linger longer in the memory and there will always be one that continues to rankle even as you take your armchair in the Home for Whacked Out Comedians. The best way to get over the calumny is to make the find the relevant journalist’s address, then send round Ken and Doug, South London’s premier enforcers. (Email me for the number)

6. TEETH AND TITS darling, always always, teeth and tits.

7.RESIST THE TEMPTATIONS THAT COME YOUR WAY for as long you can manage – a couple of hours say, then it’s sex and drugs till it’s time for you to write your My Booze Hell memoir.

8.BEING JEALOUS OF YOUR CONTEMPORARIES IS NOT GOOD but is inevitable. After you have been going for a couple of years you will find that that irritating comic who started around the same time as you and got slightly fewer laughs than you, you know the one – he wore a suit and never got his round in, that bloke – he will now be a TV star and have made 20 million pounds from a stadium tour and another 26 million from DVD of said show. You must despise him and bad mouth him to anyone who is prepared to listen – maybe that care worker who comes to see you now…

9.ALWAYS BE HORRIBLE TO PEOPLE WHEN YOU ARE ON THE WAY UP AND THEN THEY WILL BE HORRIBLE TO YOU WHEN YOU’RE ON THE WAY DOWN. Yes,

10. AS A COMEDIAN YOU MUST CONTINUE TO CONDUCT THE WAR ON CLICHÉ. Clichés like ‘war on cliché’. Thus, when someone writes to you for advice, tell them something different from the same old platitudes.

Oh and by the way, David, was that you I saw lurking in my garden the other night? If you do that again please be careful of my azalea.

Once I…

hitched a lift from a nun

kissed an actress on Frith Street in Soho. A few years later she won an Oscar.


was on stage at a Company Christmas party;  the audience was irredeemably pissed – too pissed to understand my most Neanderthal joke.  I tried the classic one-liner –“Arsenal are shit” – but even this proved too sophisticated.  I resorted to getting one of the Scottish hecklers on stage, where he announced exuberantly, “I am so arseholed!” Not much of an insight but it was met with clapping and cheering.  He seemed to run out of material, so I asked him how long he’d worked for the company. “Too fucking long!” More cheering. “What do you think of the managing director?” I asked. “He’s a cunt!” This caused a tumult of laughter and applause. As I left, he was sitting on the stairs, head in hands. On leaving the stage he had promptly been fired by the MD in question, a man clearly determined to confirm his, by now, public sobriquet. Back in the party I could hear a very loud, very raucous rendition of Silent Night. Not his best ever Christmas I hope.

introduced a Stockholmer bravely playing the Comedy Store in its early days.  His opening line, “Hello, I am a comedian from Sweden” got an immense laugh, which must have surprised him.  Sadly, it was the only one. 


hitched a lift from another nun. As she pulled up on a stretch of the A11 I noticed the tune she was listening to on Radio Norfolk was familiar. I could not resist exclaiming; ‘that’s me singing!’ She looked alarmed at this unlikely claim until I sang along with a couple of lines, whereupon she opened the door with a smile.


woke up my tent, having arrived in the small German place the night before and found a field. It was not a field. I was on a patch of grass in the middle of a shopping precinct.


Was chatting to an old woman in the launderette who declared gleefully,
 “81 today!”
“Really? You don’t look a day over 75.”
It’s 81 degrees today. I’m 68.”


interviewed Basil Brush. He was drunk.


bought a coconut ashtray from a man on the beach in Antigua which, it transpired, he had just stolen from our hotel balcony.


was the art critic for Richard and Judy

had to kiss Jenny Éclair for three minutes without pause, when we were background extras in a TV show. Poor Jenny, I had forgotten to shave and there were about 5 takes of the song. By the end of this marathon face-dinner we both had stiff necks, she sported a red rash and any chance of an affair between us was dead in both our hearts.
was Sid James for a few years. ‘A sadness in my life, ladies and gentlemen…’ I announced mournfully at the end of gigs, ‘is that, slowly, inexorably, I am turning into Sid James.’


was asked to write a panto for Julian Clary. I wanted to do something radical so I came up with “King Lear – The Panto”. It struck me that the there are structural similarities between the great play and Cinderella, who is obviously Cordelia. Regan and Goneril are the ugly sisters.  The Fool is Buttons.  Admittedly, King Lear as Baron Hardup was stretching it a bit, but I presented my proposal with enthusiastic optimism.  Julian’s people said they’d get back to me.  That was fourteen years ago. Blow winds and crack your cheeks missus.

in a publicity-seeking performance for the children at a Saturday morning picture show in Edinburgh. Our material was not to their taste so I stepped forward in my costume and shut them up with, ‘Right! Which boy wants to fight Batman?’ All of them, it seemed. They queued up to punch Batman in the gut.


competed with Steve Coogan for the favours of a woman at a gig who had shown interest in both of us. Gentlemanliness dictates that I not disclose which of us was the winner…


had a fight with the tallest man in Britain

presented a late-night show on Channel 4 with hard-man footballer turned hard-man actor, Vinnie Jones. Vinnie left all script considerations to me which meant I was able to present him as an enthusiastic follower of contemporary dance and lover of  poetry about flowers.


interviewed a man with a pet wolf.

interviewed, for no reason, relevant to the programme I was recording, the famous models Giselle Something and Eva Herzegova at a New York catwalk show. Eva was extremely beautiful and very tall. I thought I would ask a question she could never have heard, ‘What is it like,’ I enquired, ‘being one of the ugliest women in the world?’ She burst into tears, and I felt terrible. ‘I only ask that to women who are beautiful,’ I said, truthfully, and she cheered up a bit.
had lunch with Arthur Miller at his home in New England.

was checking into at a hotel in Cork next to a woman who was taller than me, which is unusual. Then another appeared who was taller than her, followed by a third giantess; it was the Dutch women’s basketball team. They did not want to have a drink with me.
was told by a man in Budapest about a Hungarian reality TV programme in which a celebrity was secretly filmed being told by a doctor that he had inoperable cancer. The doctor was in fact an actor and the celebrity didn’t have cancer, but they filmed him for some time before he learned this.


was in the shops in the basement of the World Trade Centre on September 11th.  It was the year 2000.


saw a cashmere coat in a sale in the window of a posh shop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It was a beautiful coat, it fit me perfectly and it was surprisingly cheap. As I was paying for it I realised the 200 Euro price tag that had attracted me was attached to the scarf with which it was displayed…

was in Montreal at the annual Just for Laughs Festival, I noticed other comics had left handouts advertising their wares on a table. So I made one too.
 ARTHUR SMITH
International male escort
-English accent disguises lack of sophistication
-Special ‘tricks’
-For the lady who dares
-Introductory offer $10 for 6 hours
-See Luke the pimp on this desk.
No-one looked at it

stayed in the ice hotel in Northern Sweden.

interviewed Germaine Greer over several days in Calabria in Southern Italy. England played in the World Cup while we were there and we watched it together. Catching Germaine off guard I got her to agree that if England beat Sweden I could pinch her arse but I think we were both pleased when Sweden equalised in the last minute.


sailed across the pink skies above Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a hot air balloon. Later, I went to where Billy the Kid was gunned down and took part in the Denby Duck race with my duck Arthur. He won!
went to the cash point  next to the station in Locarno to get a hundred euros out and found I had bought a train ticket to Milan

presented a TV programme about the new world of  Health and Safety. Eamon, the brilliant and tenacious director, took me to the Pamplona Bull Run with an H and S man who was required to do a ‘risk assessment’ of the event. He was a charming chap who played along and concluded that the run could only go ahead in Britain if the bulls were made of plastic.

nearly had a fight with Billy Connolly