Thursday 12 September 2019

Hitting Partner

‘Look at his haircut. It’s embarrassing. It’s fucking em-ba-rra-ssing!’

Gaby’s been going at me for a full forty five minutes now. She started on my serve and then, as she does at least once every two days, went into a rant about how I had the worst forehand in the developed world. Now she’s onto my haircut, a new means by which to humiliate me.

She is Gaby Prio, the former world number one, current world number eleven tennis player and the winner of nine grand slams. I am her hitting partner - a job I have done and hated for ten years.

There are no more than a hundred, probably fewer, full time professional hitting partners in the world. Not that it’s an elite job, no one wants to be a hitting partner. The moment you become one is the moment you accept defeat, that you will never be a tennis player. Now you’re just an imitation of one, a kind of shitty tribute act. Worse than that in fact. A tribute act still performs in front of an audience. They still do what they set out to do, just not as successfully as they had hoped that they might. A prep cook still cuts carrots that end up in the dish, they just don’t get the credit. What a hitting partner does is cut carrots, cut carrots all fucking day, just so that the chef can cut carrots. Unless you cut carrots, the chef can’t even practice cutting carrots.

Now that I’ve basketed the sixty balls around the court, I hit one to Gaby, in hopes of a brief break from the abuse. She forehands it back, the ball lands inside the service line. Rather than stepping in and putting her under pressure, I wait and simply knock it back with a little more pace and keep her at the back of the court.

It’s December in Fort Lauderdale. There’s rain forecast for right now but, to my disappointment, it’s still a sunny 85 degrees and we have to keep on playing. With no competitions, this month is usually about conditioning. This year is different because she lost in the second round at the US Open to some ‘big chinned fucking lesbian’ (Gaby’s words) Belgian doubles specialist who only got a singles wild card out of sympathy when their partner pulled out through injury. The resulting rankings slip meant that for the first time in eight years Gaby missed out on the WTA Finals in Singapore for which only the top eight qualify.

In those eight years she’s never got close to missing out on the WTA Finals but this has been a bad 12 months. At 29, with a shitty back and four cortisone injections in the last two years, people (most of all Gaby) are wondering whether she can still compete at the top. That’s why these few weeks are about confidence as much as they are about fitness. That puts more responsibility on me.

She hits a cross court backhand and I hit one straight back and this is what we do for the next ten strokes or so. This is where Gaby is most comfortable - on the baseline, hitting cross court top spin backhands. Now I hit one up the line to get her moving. I’ve done this a million times. When she’s playing well, I’ll go for a winner - not today. I hit it flat, relatively short and a foot inside the tram lines so that she has the time to play it how she likes.
She plays the right shot but badly. Gaby crouches down, rotates her hips and uses all the strength from the big Sicilian American arse that led her to three grand slams in 2011. But her timing isn’t right. There’s a stiffness this year that won’t budge. At first that caused her to get to the ball too late, now she’s rushing it. The power is there but it lands two inches past the baseline. Deciding not to call it out means that a bad shot has the effect of being a good shot. I get there but I’m stretching and play a defensive wristy forehand that hits the tape of the net and drops my side of the court.


She’s stood, feet spread, shoulders back, ready for a fight. Her racquet looks like a baseball bat with me the intruder on her lawn. Gaby turns to Slavo, her Croat coach.
‘You gotta help me out Slavo. I need someone new. Eva’s not hitting easy, fucking EASY fucking shots into the net. How am I supposed to practice? Can’t I just hit balls against a fucking WALL?’

Eva is the Swiss 21 year old new number one who won both the US and the French this year. Not an easy double to do. The US is one thing. Eva, like Gaby, like most pros, grew up playing on the sort of hard courts you get at the US Open. The French is played on clay and that is something entirely different. Clay is slower, which means longer rallies. The bounce is higher so the clay game is dominated by players with serious top spin - a slice goes for nothing on clay. And there’s the fact that the ground literally moves under your feet. You are running on dirt. To play well on clay you have to learn to spend half your time sliding along the court. Clay tennis is effectively a sub sport of the rest of tennis. The French Open is usually won by clay specialists, big South American or Spanish thugs who grew up with red dirt on their legs. Eva didn’t grow up like that. Eva was raised in a Zurich country club. While her father made millions looking after the cash of African despots, her mother made a project of Eva and turned her into what the tennis world is calling ‘the female Federer’. Not unreasonably either. She has that sort of made in a Nazi laboratory Arian perfection to her. After picking up a couple of Australians and a Wimbledon as a teenager, winning the French is a big deal. Completing the career grand slam (all four majors) with her US Open victory, Eva is already being talked of as someone who could go on to be the ‘best ever’. The ‘best ever’ ship has most likely departed for Gaby. This is why Gaby hates Eva. Because she’s better than her. I hate Gaby because I do not like her as a person.

Every tennis player has their story of a brutally unusual childhood. Mine is the most common one. An obsessive parent (in my case my mother) decided I was going to make up for her failings when I was four. Her father, a Harley Street doctor, died and left her half a million and a big house in Richmond, London. His death and the resulting financial freedom it gave my mother determined my career path before I knew what one was. Just days after the funeral she sat in the garden and looked at the tennis court she now owned, then at her son and knew what the rest of our lives would be about.

It never once occurred to me that tennis was supposed to be fun. She never said the word ‘play’. It was always ‘practice’ or ‘work’. I was a four year old with a job. Having been a half decent junior player herself she was able to teach me the strokes. We’d get up at six, before my father left for his civil service job, and hit balls for two hours before school. Then after school it was another two hours before dinner and bed. As the first winter approached she installed floodlights so that the schedule couldn’t be interrupted by the seasons. As the
years went on there was a succession of different coaches but it was always my mother who drove my ‘development’.

When I started to enter tournaments a major problem became apparent - I didn’t care about winning. I had the strokes. Technique wise I was probably one of the best eight year olds in the world. A match though was just an opportunity to hit balls with another kid instead of my horrible mother or one of her surrogate coaches. An only child who was now schooled at home, which meant only tennis, this was the closest I got to playing with other children. Why waste such a chance by stressing about a scoreline?

Gaby is different. Gaby would punch her adorable nephew in his adorable three year old face for a point. Gaby didn’t need the pushy parent. She was the pushy parent. Sure, her mother took her to a tennis summer school at the the age of four but that was only because it gave her the opportunity for Sauvignon Blanc lunches with other depressed mothers. It was Gaby who refused to leave two hours after picking up a tennis racquet for the first time, it was Gaby who spent the next six years hitting balls against the wall in her back garden and it was Gaby who at the age of eleven, realising that there was no one left in her small New Mexico town who could beat her demanded that she move to Florida to join the Steve Maddison Tennis Academy.

Gaby, as far as I can see, is unique in the sport. She is a tennis player who actually chose to be a tennis player.

I hit her another ball. She hits a soft forehand back. The tension hangs over the first few shots but gradually we speed up. She signals that we’re at it again by whipping a 110mph forehand at my feet. Nearly thirty years of hitting balls mean I’m able to half volley it back to her baseline. The next few shots from each of us could be accompanied by a ‘fuck you’. We’re both hitting it as hard as we can. John McEnroe just said that Gaby probably won’t ever win another Grand Slam. Fuck you. Where’s that rain? Fuck you. Her hitting partner is getting old and deteriorating just as fast as her. Fuck you. Gaby Prio has called me a prick every day for the last ten years. Fuck you. Eva Merian just got a massive Dior contract. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.

Thunder and a sudden barrage of heavy Florida afternoon raindrops. Yes! I’m so excited that I hit a beautiful angled winner that Gaby doesn’t bother chasing. We run under the covered area beside the court. Slavo walks out into the rain and collects the balls so that they’re still usable. Gaby takes her phone from her bag and heads to, I assume, Instagram. I sit down and drink water. The entire sky is grey. Within forty five minutes there will, most likely, be blazing sun again and a dry court. We’re not done for the day.

If Gaby is nearing the end of her career then I most certainly am. At thirty two, as a hitting partner I’m no longer an appealing candidate for anyone who could afford one. Three or four years ago I could have walked into a job, perhaps even as a coach, with any of Gaby’s rivals. Being part of her camp meant being associated with winning. No one could know that I never really cared about competition. Of course I wanted the bonuses that tournament wins brought but that animal need to better someone else that the sport depends on is not something I have nor want.

So I’m approaching the finish line on a career that somebody else chose for me, with no qualifications and very little cash to show for it. According to the last time I googled it Gaby has a net worth of $55 million. Much of that has come from endorsements. A great deal of her actual tennis winnings are spent on her team - coach, trainer, physio, PA and me.
Added to that are a series of figures who pop in and out - a dietician, security, a fat Reverend by the name of Chuck whom Gaby will not tolerate a bad word against. Then there’s her family who come to all the major tournaments and many of the smaller ones - her idiot brother who has supposedly been doing a degree in Psychology for the last nine years, her quiet, vacant looking father and his ex wife - her drunken, boob jobbed, claims to have fucked Jimmy Connors, called the tournament director at the Dubai Open a rag head, under strict instructions to be kept away from the press at all times, mother. All these people’s flights, some first class, some (mine) economy have to be paid for. All these people’s hotels have to be paid for - some of us at the Meridian, some of us at the Ramada Inn. All that expenditure leaves me with a basic salary of $60,000 a year. Not bad for someone with no A Levels but not enough not to worry about what may well be an upcoming fifty years of poverty once tennis stops paying.

Need it stop? I have friends from my junior days who make a living coaching the children of more rich pushy parents, one in fact set up an academy in upstate New York and judging by his Facebook posts appears to have bought a boat. There could always be a job for me in England. The British tennis establishment fetishizes American tennis and surely my long time involvement with its leading player would get me a job on the Lawn Tennis Association. But that would mean living in the same country as my mother and, to her satisfaction and even worse, working in tennis. Most people hate their jobs, right? Plumbers, accountants, people like that. But no one fixes drains from the age of four.

I could just leave. Get into my car and go. I’ve never been to the Keys. I hear the beaches smell but that’s ok.

Gaby looks up from her phone and at me. She throws me a baseball cap with a smile. ‘Wear a hat, that’s all I’m asking’

It’s a peace offering in the form of another dig at my haircut. She skips over and sits on my lap.

‘Do you hate me?’

She’s done this for ten years. It’s always a countdown to the next tirade and the next flirtatious make up. I tolerate it because she’s good at tennis which at this moment in time seems like an odd reason.

A melancholy in my gut rises and becomes a nervous anger in my chest. One day when I was six a teacher singled me out for talking in assembly when I hadn’t been. I couldn’t handle the fact that that injustice could just be left hanging there, uncorrected. Their authority, my inarticulate six year old voice, the impossibility of me proving my innocence all meant nothing could be done.

Twenty five years later that same feeling is with me. I cannot challenge her. Until I was 22 my mother controlled my life almost entirely then without me noticing it I transferred those powers to a girl three years my junior.

What I’m supposed to say is obvious to any socialised adult human. Coming as frequently as it does I’m well practiced at answering the ‘Do you hate me?’ line correctly and I do.


It’s already stopped raining. I look beyond the drying court to the car park and beyond that a highway, some marsh land, a strip mall, a church, an empty baseball diamond. In of themselves none of those places hold any appeal. Nevertheless, each of them is sending out a ferocious pull thanks to what they are not - tennis courts.

I look at the tennis racquet beside me, the woman still sat on my lap and the coach preparing the court and I know what to do. 

This time, I do it.

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Bill Craig: 1930 - 2019

Bill Craig, my grandad, died last week, five days after his 89th birthday and on his and my Nana's 68th wedding anniversary. He was a powerhouse of a man, an enormous character who left on impression on every person who had even the briefest of encounters with him, who dominated every room he entered and who once claimed to me that he was the inventor of laundry detergent. A true eccentric, who if he ever doubted himself for a second never once gave it away.

Much of his life is a mystery to me. Almost everything I know of him is from stories he told me, many of which seemed too crazy to be true - he was once so angry when punching a man (in a fight which he won, obviously) he broke his own teeth by gritting them. He drove the wrong way up the Dartford Tunnel and a waiting police car let him go because he told them he was with Mi5. He invented the three bar fire.

I think he may have been a genius of sorts. His schooling was interrupted by the second world war. Perhaps with a fuller education he'd have had the capacity to better explain the countless, constant ideas pumping out of his brain. Had circumstances been different he could easily have been a household name. Nevertheless he achieved success in a number of fields and notoriety on Mersea Island, Essex where he spent the last 43 years of his life. In the fifties and sixties, he operated cigarette machines around London. Then he ran his own restaurant, which with Bill Craig in charge was of course unique for its day. I'm told it was the first self service restaurant in the UK and was even featured on a Tomorrow's World type TV show as an example of the future. Sadly, I think he may have been ahead of his time.

He went on to own fish and chip shops, eventually moving to West Mersea to run one with my Nana and became known affectionately by some, I'm told, as 'Bill Crazy'. Visitors to his chippy were often treated to cod, chips and an animated lecture on how the world could be if they'd only listen to Bill Craig.

What really brought him to the island was not fish and chips but a passion for boats, something he passed on to his two sons. He built his own boats obviously, never bought them, he was that sort of a man. In Britain, the official retirement age for a fisherman was 55. When Bill turned 55, he gave up the chip shop and became a full time fisherman.

Right until his final years, he spent much of his life in his shed - a chaotic testament to his mind, a place that only he understood and where one entered at serious risk to their own personal safety. Shelves of fifty year old tools, uncovered live electric plugs. To the horror of their mothers he thought nothing of inviting his younger grandchildren to have a root around. He always wanted to inspire in others his own passions.

Most of my memories of him occurred in his living room at family events. Bill Craig always held court, by sheer force of personality. The topic of discussion was nearly always what Bill wanted it to be - his eyes twinkling mischievously above his moustache. Stories of shooting seals. Stories of his drinking fifteen pints a night in the army but never once having been tipsy. Stories of letters he'd written to members of the cabinet, giving them solutions to the problems of the day. You were always entertained.

As his family grew, as his many grandchildren produced many more great grand children he took pleasure in passing on his stories and expertise to new generations. When three year olds opened Christmas presents, mothers jumped up to stop him handing them his pocket knife. As we reached our teenage years he'd delight in offering his homemade and insanely strong plum wine.

Full of life, humour and inventions until the very end Bill Craig was a man who left a mark far far bigger than most.

Saturday 22 June 2019

My bit on Boris.

Some time in August 2008, before the financial crash really kicked off, before the London riots, before MPs expenses, before phone hacking, before every TV figure from my youth was discovered to have been a paedophile, before the referendum, before Jo Cox, before Corbyn, before Trump - I saw Boris Johnson at the Vue Cinema in Islington. He was there to see Tropic Thunder with what I assume was one of his five, six or seven (estimates vary) children. True to reputation he arrived late and as he made his way to his seat, the occupants of Screen One gave him a cheer and gentle applause.

This was just a few months after he'd been made the first Conservative Mayor of London and here he was in the constituency of little known socialist backbencher Jeremy Corbyn receiving a genuinely warm response from a room full of twenty something action comedy fans. I don't think I applauded (I can't be sure) but I certainly didn't boo and neither did anyone else.

In some senses Boris Johnson is the perfect politician for me. Long ago I decided that I hated political ideology. I can't stand those who feel that the answers to all problems, big or small, can come from one simple belief system. Whatever the issue - education, wages, trains - just stick it into our machine - socialism, free market, Brexit - and as long you leave our machine alone, as long as it's allowed to operate purely, the utopian solution will pop out.

What I enjoy, what's kept me obsessively watching, reading and listening to politics since I was literally 11 is the game. I like to watch the game. Boris Johnson, from what I can tell, is the game. He is nothing but the game.

Boris Johnson is our Trump - not because they've both taken advice from Steve Bannon, not because they both happily munch on nationalism for their own ends, not because they both grew up in extraordinary privilege or the frequency and ease with which they lie or their many wives or the fact that they are both roughly six feet of cunt underneath a bad haircut. Yes, Boris has a bigger vocabulary and Donald has a bigger bank balance but as politicians they are fundamentally the same man because they have no ideology other than themselves. They believe in their own aggrandisement and whatever it takes to achieve it.

It's been mentioned many times that Boris Johnson wrote two columns on Brexit - one for leave, one for remain. I've read both. His remain argument was published at the end of Tim Shipman's brilliant book All Out War. His leave argument was a lot stronger. I believe that's because it suited his writing style better. Johnson is more Wordsworth than Orwell - there's a poetry to 'sovereignty'. Pragmatism is prose. His decision on which way to go was informed by two things - which was the better column and what he knew would one day be his path to Prime Minister - the opinions of Conservative Party selectorate. It's not that he went against what he believed. I think it's very unlikely that he believes in anything other than a collage of easily discarded but comforting phrases and cliches he's built up over his lifetime and the wants and needs of his ego and his penis.

Now his penis has taken him to a flat in Camberwell, where I now (but for this brief hiatus in Montreal) live. I doubt he gets cheers there. I very much doubt he'd even get cheers at Islington Vue now. He must surely be the most viscerally hated politician in Britain and yet Conservative members are about to choose him to be Prime Minister because of his supposed popularity with the electorate. I'd suggest a lot's changed since Tropic Thunder came out. Robert Downey Jnr blacks up in that film, for example.

I watched Boris Johnson's interview with Ian Dale at a Conservative leadership hustings yesterday. It was awful. He avoided every question and appeared genuinely disgruntled and hurt that questions had to be asked of him at all - 'Can't you see I had a haircut? Can I just have the fucking job now please?' The audience were on his side - how dare you ask questions of our Boris? It's the whole Trump, Corbyn thing again but this time with the added excitement for me that I might bump into the protagonist buying condoms at my local corner shop.

Here's the inescapable reality. Boris Johnson is going to fucking hate being Prime Minister. He's going to have to live at his work. Every day he's going to wake up in a building full of people wanting him to make actual decisions. Any time he's given the opportunity to do what he enjoys - perform - he's going to make some kind of a mess which is going to bring about criticism and more questions and he's going to fucking hate it.

For his sake and ours I hope he doesn't have to do it.

Note 1: I wrote this while a little drunk so please discount the entire thing.

Note 2: I once saw Jeremy Hunt buying cheese at Liverpool St Station so please await a piece on that soon.

Monday 10 June 2019

Parenting Tips

1. Don't forget to love your child.

2. Don't love your child too much. There is a finite amount of love one can give over a lifetime. It's important that you save some up for any hobbies that you might find in retirement - eg golf or remote controlled model boats.

3. Name your child something easy to remember like Qwerty or 9/11.

4. Until they're able to cook for themselves at around nine months, feeding your child is a must. This is a pain but there's no way round it. One way of making it a little easier is to fill their cot with nine months supply of tinned all day breakfast when they're born.

5. Sooner or later you're going to have to have The Talk with your son or daughter. As every good parent knows, The Talk is the female rap in the song No Diggity but slowed down and said in an Irish accent. Learn it thoroughly and give it to them on their eighth birthday.

6. Never operate heavy machinery, unless with a child.

7. Say goodbye to sleep! I don't know if anyone's told you this but having a child means you ain't gonna be gettin' much o' the old sleep my friend. Hooh boy! This is because you'll be constantly running over and over in your head all the awkward conversations you've had with their night nurse.

8. Teach your child about death by getting them a pet and murdering it in front of them.

9. 'There's nothing funnier than dressing a dog in human clothes'. Actually, there is one thing and that's dressing a child in human clothes. Try it with yours. Trust me, it's hilarious.

10. Make sure your child is getting enough screen time.

11. It can be really cute to monitor your child's growth with a pencil on the wall. Just put a little mark on either side, just above the hips and watch how that waist grows!

12. Give your child a head start in life by setting up a savings account or a Subway loyalty card.

13. Don't push your own interests on to your child. Give them the opportunity and the space to discover what they love. Buy them a subscription to Top Gear magazine, get them a poster of The Stig, read them James May's autobiography every night, take them to The Top Gear Roadshow or The Top Gear Exhibition or An Evening With Top Gear. Soon enough they'll find what they're into.

14. If your child misbehaves, put them in the 'Naughty Corner' which is at Tebay Services just off the M6 southbound between junctions 38 and 39.

15. It's important to find out if your child has any allergies. Ask them to fill out a short form when they're born.

16. Nothing can truly prepare you for the love that you will feel when your child comes into the world. You should give yourself an idea though - take an E on the way to the maternity ward.

17. Every second with your child is precious. Make sure your phone is charged so you don't waste a single opportunity to exploit them for personal affirmation on social media.

18. It's really difficult to decide whether to vaccinate your baby or not. Sit down with your partner and decide if you want your child to get measles.

19. Having a child can change your relationship with your partner. Especially if you have the child with someone else.

20. It's easy to get bogged down in all the do's and don't's of being a parent. The most important thing is to remember to enjoy it. Before you know it they'll be three and off to boarding school so saviour every moment!

Tuesday 14 May 2019

Things are not going well for us but do you remember the success of Adele's second album?

Hi. Britain here. Look, we know that from the outside things looks like they're not going well for us but do you remember the success of Adele's second album? Yes, we held a referendum on a binary question without sufficiently considering the consequences but that album was just phenomenal wasn't it?  And when our country voted to leave the European Union without defining exactly what that meant we put ourselves into a state of inevitable, permanent chaos but that voice, eh? Yes, we were told that the German car industry would guarantee a free trade deal upon our departure and that didn't come to pass but seven Grammys and twelve Billboard Music Awards! So the promises of the leave campaign turn out to be contradictory and undeliverable and the song 'Rolling In The Deep' was just everywhere wasn't it? And now our leaders are insisting that the result of the referendum must be respected but they don't have the political capitol to admit that respecting the result will come at a high economic and cultural price with no discernible upside and according to Wikipedia 31 million copies sold worldwide! So now we have half a country embarrassed at where we find ourselves and in the digital age it's hard to see an album ever selling anything like as many copies ever again. And the other half of the country is angry that the establishment is denying them the sunlit uplands of freedom and to think that she achieved all this at such a young age! Of course, we are a country comprised of four nations, two of which voted to remain so our departure from the EU could trigger the eventual collapse of the United Kingdom and 'Someone Like You' was the biggest selling digital single of all time. Have we thrown away an international status far greater than an island of our size should expect in just a couple of short years and was there ever a more charming giver of an acceptance speech in music? And as we wrestle with our identity and fear for our futures we turn to nationalists and populists with easy answers to difficult questions and it's easy to forget how rare it is to see a woman with her body shape get such positive affirmation. Every day brings more humiliation and every track is a hit. In turning our back on Europe will we turn to the wider world or in on ourselves and was the success of that album our last great moment?

Friday 26 April 2019

What do you all actually do?

I haven't had a job since 2005. Not a real job anyway. Fourteen years. My joblessness has pubes.

I've somehow managed to sustain myself by appearing in the odd tragically under the radar sitcom, comically raising my eyebrows in adverts and pickpocketing. I appreciate this could sound like bragging but I'm increasingly of the opinion that I have wasted a large portion of my life.

In an average year I probably get about 200 days in which I can do what the fuck I like. What have I done with that time? I remember going into the National Gallery one day some time around 2011 but I'm pretty sure that was just for a shit.

What do I do? I write. I wrote a fun book that sits in a couple of thousand bathrooms. I write these blog posts. I wrote half a novel (doesn't everyone?) and I wrote a few chapters of a book about pubs which my agent told me was "depressing and I just think the people who like these kind of pubs don't read books". I've written a series of sitcom pilots which all get similar notes - "this is very funny but also no". I write and rewrite long long long letters to former girlfriends.

Of course it's not all writing. The late noughties featured an awful lot of Sky Sports News but I eventually found that a training ground interview with Nicky Butt doesn't get any better on the fifth viewing. I go for walks which I tell myself is thinking time but is actually listening to podcasts and therefore other people's thinking time. I think about sending an email. I put on a wash. I look up people on IMDb and work out where they were in their careers at my age. I hang up the wash.

Jesus Christ, this is a grim sit down and write.

What do you do? You get to work - you say hello to Malcolm and Annette and the new girl Anish, you sit at your desk/booth/lathe - what the fuck do you do? Emails. That seems to be everyone's answer. What's in the emails though? You're all just emailing each other aren't you? Do we live in an email based economy? I honestly don't understand how everyone fills their day. Retail, I get that. Or restaurant work, or painting road markings - I get all that. The rest of you though? If I get on the tube any time between 6 and 10am it is absolutely shit packed with you people - in suits, in black skirts, reading The Economist, watching Top Gear on your iPad - where in the name of heavenly piss are you going and what are you going to do when you get there?

Statistics say I've got about another 40 years of this shit. I mean, I could go and get a real job but a) my CV has a gap the size of Russia and b) it's only about six months until all jobs are done by robots anyway so what's the point?

Of course, if I meet you at an industry party or in a casting then I have very much 'been busy' but the truth is I'm hoping the task of clipping my fingernails will take up a good 45 minutes today. I remember bumping into an actor/writer friend in the street and we did the old 'what you up to?' dance. I was happy to be able to tell him that I'd 'just finished filming' something because it had only been about three years. He was literally chasing me down the street yelling recent projects at me. Hilariously I was on the way to a session with a therapist and let me tell you he could have added that to his credits because his name played a significant role in that hour. Everyone says they're busy but I've been in a lot of cafes with people on laptops and I've looked at their laptops and it is my pleasure to reveal that not a single one of those fuckers is doing any work.

Everyone says they never get a minute and yet social media is FULL. Everyone is bashing out a fucking book a week on Whatsapp and it's getting worse. I've sat alongside teenagers in libraries whilst fiddling around with my soon to be rejected scripts. They sit down - they pull out their exercise books, then they pull out their phone and then they pull out a whole bag of custard creams. The only thing that goes in the books is crumbs.

Of course I'm making excuses for my lack of productivity. With this many years of free time I should have a lot more to show for it. It takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world class in any field apparently. I could be offering Yo-Yo Ma some competition. Alright, that's it, I've decided I want a cello for Christmas. Come 2033 Yo-Yo Ma better watch his ass.

Ok, going for a nap now.

I know you're sat there in a rage. "I NEVER GET A SECOND TO MYSELF! I'M SNOWED UNDER!". And yet you found the time to read this didn't you? A half arsed blog post by a man who's most significant achievement was starring in a David Hasselhoff vehicle on Dave. A man who had to Google the spellings of both the word 'achievement' and the word 'vehicle'.

Monday 15 April 2019

The History Of (my) Stand Up Comedy

My first ever stand up gig was in September 2002. Long time ago, that. Katherine Hepburn was still alive. I'd spent the previous two months going to stand up gigs as a punter with a real 'I could do that' smugness. I already knew what I didn't like. I think pretty much all 22 year olds who've not done the thing they're thinking of doing think that they're better than 95% of the people actually doing it. Although I didn't really know what a compere was I decided that all comperes were shit. Asking the audience where they were from, what they did, was unimaginative hackery - something I would never do.

Stand up seemed like a near blank canvas of an art form. The only requirement was to make people laugh and yet so much stand up seemed to follow the same narrow tropes. I was going to come along and change the game.

My first gig was at Pear Shaped, a legendary open mic night in Fitzrovia. I sat in the front row, drank four pints and watched the 16 comics before me perform with wildly varying levels of success. Back then at least a third of the open mic circuit were far worse than a randomly selected person on the street might be. It made for an entertaining rollercoaster of an evening.

At this stage I was a trained actor and had recently completed a tour with the RSC but when the host, Brian Damage, brought me up I was insanely nervous. I remember my leg visibly shaking onstage. I spent much of my five minutes commenting on the limb wobbling, winning me some laughs. It was enough to give me an enormous high and confirm my suspicions that I was in fact a brilliant comedian in waiting.

Three or four relatively successful gigs later and I did a Sunday night show at Up The Creek in Greenwich. Hosted by legendary drinker and club owner, the late Malcolm Hardee, I would later learn that the night had a reputation for brutal heckling. Unblemished by a bad gig I went up with my unformed open mic material and smashed it. A friend told me I was as good as any professional club comic and I believed them. Someone else told me that they'd heard stand ups got paid £400 for a twenty minute set. Rather than the fee for a headliner at a top club on a Saturday night I took that to mean - the standard rate for all stand up sets was £400. I planned my future;

If I already had 5 minutes of audience destroying material, within three months I figured I'd have 20 and would be invited onto 'the circuit' by whomever was in charge of that shit. I supposed I'd give myself one night off a week meaning I'd have 6 x £400 = £2,400. Sweet. Guessing that the travelling could get lonely I day dreamed about paying a friend to come with me and play tennis during the day.

The following Sunday, recent Perrier winner Daniel Kitson was headlining the Creek so I turned up and said hello to Malcolm Hardee who kindly told me I'd been good the week before and asked if I'd like to go on again. "It'd just be the same stuff" I said. That wouldn't be a problem, he assured me.

The atmosphere was very different. I watched two open mics get relentlessly pummelled by the crowd. It seemed the entire audience was there with the sole intention of humiliating the acts for their own entertainment. I've never seen a night like if before or since. As I stood beside him and we watched the victim before me get insulted by 200 people in unison, I heard Malcolm mumble to himself "perfect".

In introducing me as "Fergal Craig" he told the audience I'd been on the week before, had 'died a death' but was back to give it another go. Fuck. Up I went and said the first line of my elaborate first joke. "You were on last week!" someone shouted and the onslaught began. I went into my 'edgy' Holocaust material (all new open mics have either edgy holocaust material or edgy paedo material and it's always shit) and someone shouted that their family had died in the Holocaust and they were thoroughly offended. They said this with a massive smile on their face. A couple of minutes in I won some laughs by saying I was doing stand as a dying wish but the game was up and Malcolm dragged me off stage. Red faced, I went to hide in the toilet. Daniel Kitson found me and kindly consoled but the humiliation was so unexpected, so absolute that I didn't really do stand up on my own again for another six years.

My return came in September 2008. As my double act came to an end I started showing up at open mic nights again, just to prove to myself that I could do it. At this stage I had a career as a comic actor on the go. I'd been on stage in my double act a lot. My experience gave me an unfair advantage. Four months later I won the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year award which was sort of cheating. Second place was Seann Walsh and he was never heard of again.

This brought about one of my worst ever gigs. Hackney Empire put on a showcase for some of the finalists. Returning confidently to the scene of my victory I had no fears about my 20 minute headline spot despite not having 20 minutes of material - I'd play with the audience, I'd improvise. I was an idiot. The second half of my set was an abomination sprinkled with actual arguments with members of the crowd and was followed by the compere Jo Brand berating the audience for being mean. I didn't give up stand up this time.

Over the course of the next couple of years, in comedy terms, I fucked up a bit. I once heard Tim Key interviewed on a podcast. He said (hope I'm remembering this right) that he started out awful and didn't really have any option other than to be alternative and creative. I started out quite good but I didn't really know what kind of stand up I wanted to be - I just knew I didn't want to die because dying is painful. So I did things that I thought would make an audience laugh - not always things that I found funny.

That isn't to say that I stopped dying. Gigs at Imperial College Students Union and the Latitude Festival stand out - there were others. Usually a fall came when I overstretched myself. The worst instance was when I agreed to do a show at the Leicester Comedy Festival. That was a major fuck up. I didn't have anything approaching a show but was on a good run of gigs and wanted to have a go at an hour. In one of the worst decisions in the history of British comedy I agreed to let reviewers in. Maybe I thought, maybe it will be brilliant. It wasn't. It was really bad.

I wasn't bad at stand up though. I started to MC Knock2Bag gigs and found that I really liked being a compere - despite previously deciding all comperes were shit. Did I ask the standard - 'what do you do?' questions? Of course I did. It's a really good question that can take you anywhere.

I set myself the challenge of getting Jongleurs gigs. Firstly for ca$h but most importantly because I wanted to know if I could do it - if I could survive in the combative environment I had so spectacularly failed in the past. Turns out I was relatively good in those Saturday night bear pits.

I had developed a good six or seven minutes on accents. This was broad material that seemed to work with pretty much any crowd. At first I loved performing it but then it became a bit of a problem. I couldn't seem to work up anything that was quite as successful and I was addicted to opening with it because it won me so many credit points with the audience.

I became a regular compere with Jongleurs. Some nights it was enormous fun. Big crowds, enjoying their Saturday night out. A big laugh in a room with such a high Jaegerbomb per capita rate is a very big laugh. Other nights I felt like I was trying to win the approval of the people who bullied me at school. Sometimes in those rooms my accent material felt, rather than a lovely little play around with sounds, like taking advantage of lazy stereotypes. I was good at compering, I was quick, but sometimes I panicked and said something to appease what I thought the crowd wanted and berated myself on the way home. The worst instance was when I called a hen night 'sluts' for no good reason in Portsmouth. I got a cheer from the crowd but I was just being a bully with a microphone. It's hard though, this stand up lark. Sometimes you just end up calling a table full of women sluts and spending the train journey home wondering if you're a comedian or a misogynist ring leader.

I gave up stand up not long after that incident. Jongleurs were being shit about paying me (and a lot of other folks) and I'd lost the enthusiasm to do other, lower paid, more alternative nights. I had found myself in this awful position in which I felt low when the audience weren't laughing but zero high when they were because that was just what was supposed to be happening. On reflection I think I was simply having a bad month and should have ploughed on, thrown away some of the material I'd grown to dislike and had some fun again. But I was acting and writing and stand up was only ever a side gig so I didn't feel like I was abandoning my calling.

Now, thanks to the love of a good woman, I find myself living in Montreal for a year and I've started doing stand up again. I'm starting from scratch - all new material - observations on the nuances of the Geordie dialect don't work well here. One enormous advantage is that I immediately have an angle - I'm the British guy. In the UK I was just another British guy in a country of thirty million British guys.

I'm surprising myself by how much I'm falling in love with stand up again. I shouldn't have given it up. What an amazing thing to be able to do. There are a hundred things to think about as a comic -  Why won't this prick respond to my emails? If I grow a moustache or something will I get on panel shows? Why is that bit not getting a laugh anymore? Should I start wearing a suit maybe? Where's the best place at this venue for a pre show shit? Am I actually a 'comic' because everyone in the dressing room seems to feel like a 'comic' and I don't.

I got bogged down in all that for a while. Probably will again one day. For now though I'm enjoying this brief oasis of just trying to come up with funny things to say on a stage.