Friday, August 29, 2014

At The Comedians' Convention

There's a tradition at the Annual Comedians' Convention that any member can stand up after the Annual General Meeting and Dinner and tell a joke. It's more than a tradition, in fact - it's enshrined in the Convention's Articles of Incorporation (bear with me here, there's a point to all this, I promise.) Many comics only attend the AGM for the chance to tell a joke afterwards.

This means that Annual Dinners have been prolonged into the small hours of the morning as one comic after another parades to the microphone and tells a joke. Eventually the Committee decided that enough was enough - but what could they do? As the right to tell a joke after the Annual Dinner is enshrined in the Articles of Incorporation, getting it removed would be a constitutional matter involving endless amounts of committees, extraordinary general meetings and no end of tedious bureaucracy. Besides, any move to reduce or remove the after-dinner joke spot would be very unpopular with rank-and-file comics. The Committee was stuck.

That's when the Secretary had a brilliant idea. All comedians know all the jokes already - all the Secretary needed to do was write all the jokes down. His labours took more than a year, and the result came to be called the Official Book of Jokes. The key feature of the OBJ was that each joke had a unique number. For example, the joke

1: My dog's got no nose.
2: How does he smell?
1: Terrible!

… would be number 115, whereas the gag

I'm not saying my mother-in-law's fat, but when she steps on the scales it says 'no coach parties please'

… would be number 346, and so on and so forth in like fashion. Having compiled all the jokes, the Secretary sent a copy to each and every member of the Comedians' Convention. At the next AGM and Dinner, which happened to be in a plush banqueting suite in Harrogate, the post-prandial proceedings were shortened considerably, as each comic wouldn't tell the actual joke, but simply refer to it by its number. First up was a seasoned comic with his own series on BBC4. He stepped up to the stage with an insouciant swagger and said

"Ladies and Gentlemen - number 466!"

Titters from the audience. Up next was a middle-aged Geordie woman with an acerbic line in put-downs learned the hard way in pubs from Alnwick down to Middlesborough.

"Number 565," she said, to rapurous applause.

Next came a pale young man from London, fairly fresh to the hurly-burly of the northern Working Mens' Club circuit. He cleared his throat and with as much charm as he could muster, said

"My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen - number 97."

Dead silence.

You could have heard a pin drop in a pin factory in Pin City. The young comic wished the ground would swallow him up. In the history of corpsing, nobody had corpsed so quickly or so completely since the Black Death. He crept the 137,000 miles back to his chair and slunk into his seat. The comic sitting next to him - an old-fashioned Northern gagmeister who'd been wowing audiences for half a century, leaned over in an avuncular manner.

"Don't worry son," he said, "it's not t' joke, it's the way you tell it."

Ba-boom, and, moreover, tish.

Now, when I was telling this joke to Crox Minor over lunch today, her reaction was, to say the least, unexpected. "Considered as Set Theory," she said, "would that joke have been included in the Official Book of Jokes?"

I have taught her too well...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Engines Of Creation

One of the great things about blogging is that you can say nice things about your friends. It occurred to me the other day that I have several friends who are really rather good with their hands, crafting beautiful things from ordinary base matter, as it were. Things you might like to buy, for yourself, or as unique and special gifts, remembering that it must be less than 39,624 shopping days before Christmas.

So in no particular order, there's Maddie Bell, bike chick and unstoppable entrepreneur, who makes jewellery and sells it on eBay. Do visit her Facebook Page. I have bought earrings from Maddie in the past for Crox Minima and recommend her highly.

And then there is Paul Noon, until recently lead singer of my beat combo, Stealer, who is a true Renaissance Man. As well as being a keen fly fisher and ghost hunter, he makes the most extraordinary rustic mirrors, framed in slate. Visit his Facebook Page to see the gorgeous designs he has on offer. I liked them so much I bought two - one as a gift for a friend, another for our own downstairs loo.

Last but definitely by no means least is Clive Foden, otherwise known as the Green Carpenter, who turns and carves wood to create items of truly astonishing beauty. Bowls, musical instruments, furniture, clocks for time and tidespinning and weaving equipment and other carved ware (he made me a lovely Chthulhu-handled paperknife) and other stuff - there seems to be nothing this man cannot make. He's even invented the ultimate office relaxation toy - a desktop Zen garden.

So, get your orders in. But do it soon. These people are really, really good, and word is spreading.

In other news, I am starting to re-make the bookshelves for my home office. I am replacing the hastily thrown-up planks-on-metal-runners jobs I put up as a temporary solution four years ago (gasp) with properly fitted bookshelves, dowel-jointed together. I've nearly finished the first of what will be many bookshelf units. More news as it arrives.

Pin The Tail On The Jew, Just £2 A Go

The gaffe that led Spanish clothing company to produce a kid's top that looked like concentration-camp garb is not isolated. A few years back I saw this sign on a sideshow at Yarmouth Pleasure Beach.

I can't remember the nature of the sideshow so advertised. Pin the tail on the donkey, maybe? A carousel? A roller-coaster, perhaps? What occurred to me then, and sticks in my mind, is that it might just as well advertise a sideshow called 'Humiliate the Jew, and Win a Teddy Bear!'

Or maybe it was something like the 'Running of the Jew' festival in that well-known magic-lantern production Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Fiction? So you'd hope. But there are some Jew-burning traditions that still go on.

When I saw this sign I admit I winced inwardly, but did nothing. If I saw it now … well, maybe not. Just another example of Everyday Antisemitism.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Maison Des Girrafes Caption Competition #113

In Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett says that because animals don't have language, they can't have opinions. He obviously hasn't met my dogs.

Captions invited.

Monday, August 25, 2014


I am Jewish. I like bacon, black pudding, seafood, bestial lesbian osculation in Dr Who, and Sossages. People in Britain who are easily offended by the presence of Jews, bacon, black pudding, seafood, bestial lesbian osculation in Dr Who, or Sossages (not to mention music, beer, sexual equality, the rule of law, democracy, freedom of religion, freedom to read and say what one likes, and happiness) should go and live in a country where such things are outlawed.

There are plenty of such countries to choose from, catering for every degree of intolerance, all of them variously totalitarian, narrow minded, backward and just plain nasty. In some of those countries they behead people for having the 'wrong' religion, mutilate girls to ensure sexual obedience, and then abduct and murder them if they want to have an education, but hey, whatever gets you through the night, eh?

Me? I have friends of all religions and none; of diverse sexual orientation and political values. I might not like everything my friends say or do, but my life is all the richer for their inclusion.

There is a reason why some countries, such as the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan (and, oh yes, Israel) in general have thriving industry, science, technology, peace, culture, prosperity and the rule of law, while the countries you'd obviously prefer languish in inequality, ignorance, violence, anarchy and primitive squalor.

Nobody is asking you to like bacon, or even eat bacon - just to understand that other people do enjoy bacon and that they have a right to do so, even if it doesn't feature on your own menu. 

This is ultimately why we will win and you will lose.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Major Milestone

Seventy-five years ago today Sgt Pepper taught the band to play my mother arrived at Liverpool Street Station in London as an unaccompanied child. She was three and a half years old.

She had been born at the Judische Krankenhaus (Jewish Hospital) in Berlin in 1936, and the sound of Stuka dive-bombers training over the city is among her earliest memories. Barely of kindergarten age she was one of the 10,000 or so mainly Jewish children evacuated from Germany by the Kindertransports - and one of the last. It was 23 August, 1939. Less than two weeks later, Britain declared war on Germany. The rest of her family - her parents and two even smaller siblings - didn't make it.

I pass through Liverpool Street Station regularly in the course of commuting between the Maison Des Girrafes and my job at the Submerged Log Company. The Kindertransports are remembered in this statue outside the station's main entrance.

I always imagine my mother as the small girl with the teddy bear. There is another, smaller statue in the main concourse near the entrance to the tube station ticket hall:

The footprints indicate the presence of another figure, now removed. I asked at the information desk recently why the statue had been removed. I was concerned, I explained to the helpful station staff person, because it meant a lot to me. She replied with barely concealed emotion that 'it means a lot to many of our customers' before assuring me that it had not been the victim of vandalism, and had just been taken away temporarily for renovation. I hope that's all it is, and that the statue will soon be replaced.

Some things, though, don't change. Berlin has once again been the scene of public displays of antisemitism, including chants of 'Jews to the Gas Chambers'. France, too, has seen a marked upswing in violence towards Jewish homes, shops and synagogues.

Demonstrations in London against Israel tend to be noisy if non-violent, though expressions of antisemitism here are also evident. There have been desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, swastikas daubed on headstones and other minor acts of vandalism. At a pro-Israel demo in Trafalgar Square I attended a few years ago, chants of 'kill the Jews' could be clearly heard from a counter-demonstration - giving the lie to the oft-expressed and mealy-mouthed sentiment that criticism of Israel isn't the same as antisemitism. It shouldn't be, but there are quite a few people, it seems, to whom this is a distinction without a difference. Why such people aren't immediately carted away for incitement to racial hatred beats me.

Someone once said that antisemitism is a beast that sleeps but lightly. My mother has made her home here. My father's family has lived here for several generations. I was born here and feel myself British to the core. At the moment, though, I do feel that I am being made to feel like I am alien in my own country. Shall we soon be seeking different places to hang our hats?

Or will our society wake up and smell the coffee?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Minor Milestone

Now, don't tell anyone. It's just between us, OK? Just us. Well, that's you, me, and the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home. The thing is … come a bit closer … that's right …

I have just received a royalty cheque

Sorry, you couldn't hear? OK, OK, I'll type more loudly.

I have just received a royalty cheque.

A royalty cheque!

did I hear you say? Please, not so loudly, or everybody will want one.

But haven't I received royalties before?

Yes, of course, Once or thrice. But never before, not ever, on a book that paid an advance. I've received small amounts of royalties on books that didn't get an upfront advance. As for books for which publishers paid me money upfront - well, they have never sold enough to cover the publisher's expenses, let alone the pre-paid advance, so apart from the advance, I have always been paid £0.00 - or, as my agent is in the United States, $0.00.

Well, it seems that The Accidental Species has sold a few copies. People have bought it. And, having bought it, say nice things, thus persuading their friends that, hey, this is a book you might wish to read.

If you are one these lovely people - many thanks indeed! Hearty thanks to my agent, for standing by me through fifteen years of loss-making projects. Lauds and garlands and no doubt libations to my publisher, the University of Chicago Press, for having faith in the project.

If you haven't bought it, well, there's nothing to stop you buying it in hardcover, or downloading it, even as an audiobook. And it'll be out in paperback in the Spring, but why wait?

This means that for the first time ever as a writer, a book for which I have been paid an advance has actually turned enough of a profit that I get paid a royalty.

Sure, not enough to buy my Dream Home, but it'll do nicely towards my next tax bill.

Just wanted to share that news with you.

I'll go now.

Thank you.