Butterfly Blog

Out waving goodbye to the retreating bluebells last week, I saw a dancing red butterfly; I smiled and remembered…….

September, a couple of years ago, the Norwich Playhouse – the interval of Arthur Smith at Large has ended and, from off stage, I introduce my special guest, the legend that is Leonard Cohen. Leonard, the audience are unsurprised to learn, looks rather like me in shades and a hat. They smile indulgently as I make my usual singing sound which is somewhere at the intersection of a groan, a croon and a croak (a grook?). So far so good. But then something terrible happens – the audience start laughing.

I am thrown. They are not meant to laugh until I get to the gaggy bits. Audiences are, by and large, predictable; if you have done a routine often enough (guilty m’lud) you get to know not just where the laugh will come, but how long and how loud it will be. This is as it should be; you are the comic – you are meant to be in charge, not stood around gormlessly wondering why people are chuckling.

Then I see it flit between me and the spotlight and I understand the source of this merriment; a butterfly has decided to join me on stage. I try, and fail, to shoo it away while singing. I cannot compete. I abandon the song as the cheeky crimson imp performs his flickering flutterdance to loud applause.

My only course of action is to improvise around my unexpected co-host; I berate the creature for interrupting me and observe that a butterfly is just a moth with PR. The tiny red fellow is clearly enjoying the attention and hovers awhile before taking centre stage again and performing some wing stretches. When I threaten to tread on him. The audience boos.

By now the butterfly is the star of the show and I have to cede the limelight. We name him Billy, identify him as a peacock and I make up some new lyrics in his honour for the end of my song.  He seems to enjoy the applause and shows no signs of exiting but, as the more experienced performer, I decide Billy has only a small repertoire and needs to quit while he is ahead. I invite a man in the front row to gather him in his cupped hand and release him outside the theatre. He gets a big round as he leaves the building and I have no doubt Billy would have had a great future in showbiz were it not for the limitations of his species.

Billy’s brief career exists now only in the memory. Billy, the stage-struck butterfly, is gone but he had his dazzling afternoon in the sun. Like we all do.

Never work with children, animals or flying insects.

Machynlleth Comedy Festival

Warning: if you are not already wearing one, and are intending to read to the end of this blog, then you now need to go and find a hat to put on. Go on off you go.

Machynlleth, you may not be surprised to learn, is in Wales and accordingly takes nearly 150 hundred years to reach from London. If you go by rail the last century is liable to be spent on a train so packed and grubby that you may, like me, wish to tweet, ‘Going to cry me Arriva.’

On arriva-l, however, I was cheered at the compliment I received from a chap in the post office on my pronunciation of the name of his town. It wasn’t luck – I had taken a BBC course called Learn How to Say Machynlleth. The key 3 points are:

1. You need a lot of phlegm in stock to get the ‘ch’ right.

2. Say the ‘nll’ as you would the ‘ntl’ of the word ‘antler’.

3. Do not be afraid of the fact that the middle syllable sounds a lot like ‘cunt’.

The town playing host to the comedy weekend is a small settlement of slatey houses in Powys and contains no Starbucks, no WH Smith, no Macdonalds and no Tescos – just the beginning of its agreeable qualities. The inhabitants are a good-natured mix of friendly locals and free-thinking hipsters from around the country. It is very easy to find a nice cheesecloth shirt to buy and I did.

I was there to record proceedings for Radio 4 Extra’s The Comedy Club (of which I am a regular presenter) and to do my one man show. I was also hoping to sneek off for some quality time, rambling and smoking in the gorgeous, sheep-spotted surrounding hills. All these things I achieved with such great satisfaction that I am already planning a return visit next year. There were dozens of acts on in numerous venues of varying eccentricity and the population of the town doubled to 4000 during the weekend the festival was running, as punters, mostly alerted on social media, flooded into town and pitched tent in a handy field.

Machynlleth is not as other festivals for all sorts of reasons: the happy absence of agents, PR people, TV producers, journalists and all the other guff that goes to make so many festivals into corporate events meant that the comics were not fighting for attention or fretting about money and reviews. The atmosphere was relaxed and outdoors-y, seeming to encourage an air of experimentation and creativity. You could engage with your audience and with the other comics in a way that is not possible at big festivals.

Apart from my scheduled stuff, I got to take part in a nude art show, recite poetry on the hill overlooking the town (which, magnificently, displayed a Machynlleth sign a la Hollywood), see a showcase of brilliant young comics, get a tour of the town (once, long ago, the home of the Welsh Parliament), hang with the drunks at the Bowls Club, become embroiled in a hen party, flirt with the ladies in the café opposite the clock tower and do a turn on a shed artfully placed in the broad sandy estuary of the nearby River Dyfi.

Throughout it all, there was a feeling of solidarity among the acts that reminded me a bit of my early Edinburghs when it was still small enough that all the performers could meet after their shows at the Fringe Club and subsequently the Gilded Balloon in Cowgate. If the Edinburgh Fringe is now a pressure cooker, the Machynlleth festival is the sun coming out.

It was all dreamed up by Henry Widdecombe, a sometime stand up, who, upon first going to the Edinburgh Festival, made a list of all the things about it that he didn’t like, and then sought to eliminate them from his own version. So then I say, everybody…… to Henry and to Emma Butler, to all the volunteers they recruited, to Machynlleth and to all its people, I say…… hats off. Come on hats off!

*****************

I was sad when it ended (never the case at Edinburgh) but pleased to stay an extra morning to take a hike into the hills. Enlivened, encouraged and enthralled by my weekend I put my iPod on real loud and danced on the summit of a Welsh mountain to the indifference of a dozen sheep.

 

10 Years Ago…

Balance March 2012

It was my first time in Geneva, that grand old town on the lake, but I cannot say I was enjoying myself; propped up on 3 pillows, I lay in my hotel room, desperately trying to ignore the pain in my stomach and the thought that this was going to be my last night alive.

Three months earlier I had spent 12 days in hospital – the first 3 in Intensive Care – with pancreatitis, or rather, to give it its full title, severe acute necrotizing pancreatitis. “You’re not out of the woods yet,” the doctors had said when I was discharged, and advised me to rest a while – another attack could prove fatal. I spent weeks living gently – but, as I grew stronger, began to feel the desire to return to work, particularly to do the Radio 4 programme about France I had been looking forward to so much. The Vosges, I want to go to the Vosges…

From the moment Sara-Jane, the producer, and I touched down in Annency I knew I was ill again.  Stomach cramps crushed my appetite, I felt enfeebled and my urine was the colour of a full-bodied Rioja. Our visits to the former residences of Rousseau and Voltaire were an endurance test. I took no pleasure in the mountains or the lakes and nearly vomited during the section about the strong local cheese. However I was determined to make it through the recording so that I might not end up in a hospital (or graveyard) in a foreign land.

I made frantic phone calls to my doctor brother, Richard, in search of medical advice. The three days became an ordeal – for Sara-Jane as much as me. Having your presenter die on duty abroad would look bad when she next had to fill in a risk assessment form. She is my friend; she fretted. On the last night we crossed the border into Switzerland where I sat in the hotel writhing and trying to will a postponement of the inevitable collapse – at least until after I had flown back to London. This agony was clearly the sequel to the pancreatitis I had been warned about and, like all sequels – except for The Godfather of course – it was worse than the original.

I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I was near their dangerous centre.

At 3am I went into a coma and died…… well no, obviously, I survived, but I was admitted straight to hospital once I had dragged myself home and was not finally discharged until a month later.

Why do I tell you this? Well, because it happened ten years ago and I want to remind myself on its anniversary that I survived, so that I might enjoy more fully the days I live in now. And to suggest to you that, sometimes, things do get better and that you should cherish the life that you have.

A couple of years ago I returned to Geneva and sat overlooking the water thinking “Phew!”

Blog about my Dad – Syd in Venice

I think the most successful sections of my autobiography, My Name is Daphne Fairfax were those featuring my father – the letter of praise for Daphne I most cherished ended, “and thank you, above all, for introducing me to Syd.”

At the age of 70, prompted by my brother Richard, Syd spent several months writing his ‘memoirs’ (he laughed at the pretentiousness of the word) in his careful, copperplate writing. The prose is spare, occasionally ungrammatical and avoids introspection or rhetorical flourish, but you can feel the underlying turbulences

There are tales in Syd’s reminiscences, especially those from his war years, which, though narrated in a few sentences or a couple of sparse paragraphs, have a kind of epic quality, stories whose details and emotions I have tried to construct in my own mind. Of these, perhaps the most affecting comes when he is still a soldier, though now in the post-war turmoil of Yugoslavia:

To my delight, I was granted a week’s leave in Venice. I went with a tough, North country lad whose main interest was booze, but I wasn’t to spend any time with him. We were accommodated in the best hotel in Venice, called the Excelsior, which stood on the Lido. It was luxurious but I wasn’t to take much advantage of it.

Gosh, why not? I am hooked. Surely, after all those cramped shared quarters, filthy desert toilets, foreign prisons and army camps, he was exhilarated at the prospect of clean sheets, warm baths and uxorious service? It will be 30 years before he ever stays anywhere as grand as the Excelsior.

It had its own sandy beach and once I’d settled in I went for a swim. The water was beautifully warm. I swam out and climbed up onto a small jetty in order to have a dive. Laying sunning herself there was a girl in a white bikini, and she was to be the reason that I spent so little time in the hotel.

Ah hah, I see….  The bikini, then a fashionable and daring new garment in the wardrobe of young women, was named – obscenely you might say – after the Pacific Island that had been nuked in the recent atomic tests, and this particular white two piece, and more particularly the eager tanned body that filled it, were naturally of more interest to Syd than any bedding, however sumptuous…

As I recall, I think her name was Santa Maria Della Costello but I think that is the name of a Church. Anyway, I called her Maria. She told me that she had lost both of her parents in a bombing raid in Milan. She showed me all the delights of Venice: St Mark’s Cathedral, the marble-paved Piazza San Marco, The Bridge of Sighs, the island of Torcello, where women were sewing Venetian lace, which we went to on a gondola.

Although her English was non-existent and my Italian was about the same we managed to communicate remarkably well and we were both sorry when my week ran out. On departure I offered her money, but she refused the offer. I think I insulted her because she thought I was paying for her services. She later tried to get to see me in Pola but was stopped at the border crossing. I never saw her again.

However many stories end with it (perhaps in some way because they all do), ‘I never saw her again’, is a phrase that is always loaded with poignancy. Forty years after his Venetian encounter I rang Syd from the beach opposite the Excelsior Hotel and claimed I could see an old lady in a white bikini. He laughed but I knew he had always wondered what had become of that sad woman, poor beautiful desperate Maria, newly orphaned and homeless, hopelessly trying to bluff her way past the guards, praying she might be rescued from her despair again by the handsome, kind, sexy, English soldier…

I never saw her again.

 

Woman’s Weekly – Dealing with Bores.

Derek, who lived a couple of doors down from us, introduced himself to me and my girlfriend Jane one evening in our local pub and we invited him to join us. As he sat down he said, ‘A really funny thing happened to me at work today.’ This was nine o’clock. Two hours later I looked at my watch to see it was nine-fifteen. Three years later closing time finally arrived, whereupon Derek invited himself back to ours for a drink. I told him firmly about our early starts but somehow he ended up on our sofa anyway where he told more ‘funny’ stories from his repertoire. It was only when I had put my pyjamas on that he finally released us from the torment. ‘It’s nice to have met some new friends’ he said ominously as he lingered at the door on the way out.

 

We are all capable of being tedious (except his Royal Highness Stephen Fry of course) but Derek was a bore of international stature – long-winded, self-absorbed, repetitive and hard to shake off. He was as opinionated as he was ignorant and, although he seemed to have no sense of the anguish he was visiting on me and Jane, he had developed a way of breathing that made him impossible to interrupt. If you did somehow manage to interject a sentence, it served merely as a reminder to him of some further hilarious episode from his life.  Within days I was ducking behind hedges to avoid him.

How to deal with the bore without being arrested for murder? Most are quite genial people who make it hard for you to be rude to them, but, on the other hand, I feel aggrieved that they never themselves seem to want to hang out with fellow bores. My attention span is short and I am genuinely pained to be pinned in a corner by a bloke (and it usually is a bloke) telling me about his car or his latest round of golf. Having appeared on TV in Grumpy Old Men I sometimes get accosted by drunks saying, ‘I’m a grumpy old man too!’ ‘In that case,’ I want to say, ‘you’ll understand when I invite you to sod off and leave me alone!’ but I don’t. You can turn down invitations, invent sudden phone calls you have to make, feign heart attacks but, short of never leaving the house, you can never be fully guaranteed against the bore.

And in the end who is to say who is boring? Maybe I’m the boring one. Certainly I was surprised by the way I finally got shot of Derek. He ran off with Jane.

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

A Poem

I have decided to write a blog once a week. but because I am very lazy it may sometimes take the form of me cutting and pasting something I like or  wrote in the past.

To whit, here is a poem recommended to me by my friend – his brother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship, had died. This was the poem he read at the funeral. I find it so affecting I have learnt it by heart. If you see me do ask me to recite it – I am a terrible show off.

A Scattering 

I expect you’ve seen the footage: elephants,
finding the bones of one of their own kind
dropped by the wayside, picked clean by scavengers
and the sun, then untidily left there,
decide to do something about it.

But what, exactly? They can’t, of course,
reassemble the old elephant magnificence;
they can’t even make a tidier heap. But they can
hook up bones with their trunks and chuck them
this way and that way. So they do.

And their scattering has an air
of deliberate ritual, ancient and necessary.
Their great size, too, makes them the very
embodiment of grief, while the play of their trunks
lends sprezzatura.

Elephants puzzling out
the anagram of their own anatomy,
elephants at their abstracted lamentations –
may their spirit guide me as I place
my own sad thoughts in new, hopeful arrangements.

Christopher Reid
A