Shall we meet then, you and I… In Skyros

Shall we meet then, you and I, on a Greek island in September? Any day between Saturday 4th and 11th? Admittedly you will have to pay for this – but think what fun we can have…

 

This will be the 4th time I have taught a course this year called ‘Mindlessness’ on the island of Skyros and here are the reasons why you should come and be my student this year

 

The island is beautiful (see pics) and so in September is the weather. The Skyros Centre lies in the tiny capital of the island – a jumble of white dwellings, groovy bars and restaurants.

 

My  ‘lessons’ take place in the mornings on a stone terrace overlooking the blue Aegean Sea. Laughter is inevitable. Peace is available in the afternoons when you can make the short walk to sit on the sandy beach, swam in the sea, eat fresh seafood or write your novel.

 

This is the blurb about my course:

Mindlessness

Mindlessness is a course for people who are interested in laughter, both doing it and making it happen. If you want to be a comic novelist, a playwright, a writer of screen plays, sketches, poetry and gags or, if you are really deranged and want to be a stand up comedian, then there will be something here for you. If, on the other hand you have no such ambition but just want to sit around laughing in the Aegean sun then you too are welcome.

There will be discussions about what is funny and exercises in how to make funny happen. You will be invited to write stories, poems and one-liners, and to recount anecdotes about your shameful past; you will learn about the rule of 3, the importance of the call back and how to cope with deranged hecklers. Most importantly, at the end everyone gets a certificate.

Some of my methods are old school e.g I will cane anyone who is more than ten minutes late and I must be addressed at all times as sir.

 

You need not be desperate to become a writer or comedian to come along – my students have included retired teachers, an optician, the newly-divorced wife of an oil executive, a Norwegian nurse, an MI5 operative and a bicycle repair-man

 

Some of my methods are ‘old school’ eg I will thrash anyone who is more than ten minutes late and I must be addressed at all times as ‘sir’.

 

If you have failed to clock that that last sentence was a joke then we have some work to do. Good.

 

 

Xxxxxxxxx

 

 

Theseus died on Skyros and Achilles left from there to take part in the Trojan Wars. And, for someone like myself, educated at a grammar school in the sixties, when we all had to know the poets of the First World War, Skyros has a special resident –  Rupert Brooke is buried there. His most famous lines take on a new poignancy when you stand at his grave in an olive grove that lies on the barren, goat-attracting Southern tip of the island:

 

‘If I should die, think only this of me.

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England’

 

So, hope to see you there and if you are till uncertain this is the clincher

 

EVERYONE GETS A CERTIFICATE!

 

A Holiday with Arthur Smith

Sun 4th to Sun 11th – Mindlessness: Comedy Writing – A course for people who are interested in laughter – Skyros Centre, Greece – Course & Booking info

 

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Poem: Saturday in Athens

Saturday in Athens

 

You can just  discern her, a faded imprint

in the matinal shimmer

a little shabbier than one might hope

She sits and thinks and sits and thinks

about her glorious heyday years

(which all the world is still applauding)

and wonders what will become of her…

 

But then as dusk unfolds

She starts to sparkle and preen and glow

and all the lights way down below

salute their boss

in her moonlit gloss.

As midnight comes

she starts to preen

and feel the joy of what she’s been.

From her columns centuries spill

shining shining on her ancient hill.

“Hey all yous,” she suddenly cries,

“all you lot beneath the skies,

Who on earth do you think you are?

Round Athens way there’s just one star.

Everybody suck on this

I am the fucking Acropolis.”

 

13th September 2014 – Athens

Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Vol 2)

The Tour 

Autumn 2014

 

September

Saturday 27th – Wyvern Theatre, Swindon – Tickets & Info

November

Fri 3rd – Churchill Theatre, Bromley – Tickets & Info

Mon 6th – Harrogate Theatre, Harrogate –Tickets & Info

Wed 15th – Theatre Royal, Brighton – Tickets & Info

Thursday 23rd – Galway Comedy Festival – Tickets & Info

Wed 29th – Concert Hall, Reading – Tickets & Info

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.

 

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.