We need to talk about Kevin

Back in in about 2007/2008 I was something of a ‘flavour of the month’ comedian for ambitious tv producers who would set up meetings to ask me what my comedic plans were. They wanted to know if they could distill my ‘gay asian doctor’ schtick into something that might work on television. The problem  is that I can’t act, I can’t do voices, I lack the sharp spontaneity that lends itself to the cut and thrust of tv panel shows. What I can do is stand at a microphone telling jokes and stories which I have lovingly written. But stand up comedians only appear on television if they are in Off the Kerb’s books or good books. And I have never been that fortunate.

“What about a documentary ?” producers would wearily ask, realising their dreams of a sitcom about a GP called Sanjay Sodomite were disappearing.

“Yes. Have you ever heard of a guy called Kevin Ashman ?”   I would always reply. And they would look at me blankly.

To those who only know what they see on television (of whom there appear to be hundreds of thousands), Kevin Ashman is the slightly dour/ dryly witty (delete as appropriate) Egghead who is unbeatable on history. To those of us in the know, it is just possible that Kevin is simply the most knowledgable human being who has ever walked the planet. His high score of 41 on the way to winning Mastermind will never be beaten. His high score of 38 in winning Brain of Britain has similar status. He is the many times British, European and World champion. He first appeared on my radar during the golden years of Fifteen-to one.  How is it possible that such a modest and self effacing man could be so utterly encyclopaedic?   I wanted to make a TV documentary to find out what makes him tick. Unfortunately nobody else did, and my fledgling television career was left floundering.

At this stage I had not dipped my toes into the murky waters of competitive quizzing. Years later I am shoulder deep in it. I haven’t just met my idol, I have competed with him and against him many, many times with predictable results. And even more pleasingly I have got drunk with him. In the written grand prixs which form the basis of our national quiz rankings, he is operating on a quite different plane to me. In the cut and thrust of the annual  Brain of London tournament, I have been edging tantalisingly closer.

Organised by the wonderful Quiz League of London, the Brain of London has a brutal format of unseeded four person knock out matches in which it is perfectly possible to play against three British/European/World champions in your first round match. In theory you cannot win without a huge dollop of luck. Kevin Ashman has won 12 times.

Two years ago I blundered away my chance to knock him out in the semi finals. He went on to win. Last year I reached the final, but he was simply much too good. This year I am proud to say that I am in the final again. Again, quizzing’s foremost titan stands in the way and will start favourite.

Also in the final is Dr. Ian Bayley. 2009 Brain of Britain champion, 2011 Mastermind Champion, he is a giant of academic buzzer quizzing, plays for legendary unbeaten Only Connect team the Crossworders and is Kevin’s teammate in the England A team.

Trying to land some kind of blow in this august company is me. And my mate Peter Ediss.  Both first round losers on Mastermind, both first round losers on Are you an Egghead.  Peter is not only a very good mate, and teammate in our team the Gray Monks, he is essentially my quiz husband. Since I met him in 2008, we have spent hours and hours helping each other to improve. I owe him a hell of a lot, and I could not be more delighted that his brilliance has been rewarded with a place in the final.

The final is tonight. The world’s most knowledgable man in history, his England A teammate, and two bessie mates hoping for the best. Apparently you can watch it on some new fangled thing called periscope. https://twitter.com/@QuizLgLondon

There is every chance that I will finish a distant fourth. I don’t care to be honest. I spent many years idolising Kevin Ashman, now he is both a friend and  (sort of) rival. To be competing in this kind of company I am already living a weird, geeky dream.

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Mourning Richie.

There are many moments in the history of Pixar movies which chime with me. One such moment is in Ratatoullie, when the feared critic Anton Ego first tastes the version of the title dish created by super talented rodents. He is immediately taken back to his childhood, his own mother’s version of ratatouille and experiences such an intensely visceral, nostalgic response that he is left emotionally weakened.

I would like to think that we all have stimuli which elicit such a response.Eating  my Mum’s lamb curry still brings back so many joyous memories, the excitement of how delicious the meal matched only by the fact that the A Team was on in half an hour. Another such stimulus is the voice of the late cricket commentator Richie Benaud.

I have never stopped being grateful to my parents for imbuing in me a love of cricket from a very early age. To anyone not au fait with cricket’s unique rhythms, aesthetics and laws, it must seem like a bizarre and tedious pastime, and I am well aware that many look at cricket and its occasionally insufferable fans with the same derision as I lazily look at Game of Thrones. Such is the lot of the aficionado, and honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. I make no apologies for the fact that every summer of my childhood was spent glued to the telly watching international and county cricket. Accompanying the play was the mellifluous voice of arguably the most revered sports commentator of my lifetime.

For a generation of cricket fans, Benaud was summer. Whether it was his erudite and understated use of language,  his “less is more” attitude to describing the play, his thorough knowledge of the complete international game, his refusal to exaggerate, his totally unbiased analysis, no cricket commentator has ever had more global kudos. From his savaging of Greg Chappell’s “underarm” scandal, to his magical adornment of the 2005 Ashes, he gave frequent masterclasses in how to commentate without prejudice.

As well as being the voice of my childhood summers, in 1990 he was the voice of one of the happiest moments of my life. That July my Dad suffered a series of cardiac catastrophes spending weeks in hospital before returning home with strict instructions to avoid physical and emotional exertions. Unfortunately he returned home in the middle of a Lords Test match between India and England. My Dad never cared for the politics of Norman Tebbit, and was really rather hoping that India at least saved the follow on. They did so in remarkable fashion when skipper Kapil Dev hit four consecutive sixes

Note Benaud’s restrained commentary. As usual he simply allowed the action to speak for itself. Over the next few weeks in the IPL, batsmen will hit meaningless boundaries and the commentators with crass  bombast will behave as though it is the second coming. Here Benaud simply acted as a bemused witness to of of Test cricket’s most remarkable feats.

By contrast my Dad instantly leapt from his seat and  cheered in an uncharacteristically feral fashion, We just stared at him in fear thinking “What the fuck do you think you are  doing Dad?  Which bit of “no exertions” did you not understand?”

Realising his mistake he said “Oh yeah. Sorry.”  And he sat down looking rather embarrassed. And he giggled. And we giggled. And I suspect for the first time we all began to believe that everything was going to be alright.

25 years later my Dad still trundles on, but sadly Richie Benaud has breathed his last. He bestrode his world like a colossus, and it is unlikely in this era of hype over substance that we shall see his like again. As well as being a great cricketer, an exceptional commentator and a true internationalist, his voice soundtracked so much that was memorable about my developing years. What a magnificent innings.

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Top Gear is not my kind of thing. That said I am not really its target audience, as I have no interest in cars and I think that its contrived laddishness is something that should be left to younger presenters. Nonetheless it is a massive success, and I am certainly not in the business of trying to deny other people their entertainment fix of choice.

In fact a few years ago I did a piece on Radio 4’s Now Show defending Jeremy Clarkson. My point was that although we are politically chalk and cheese, I thought that people had wilfully misunderstood the point of some of his jokes through sheer dislike. Saying this on the Now Show was to walk into a mild mannered liberal lions den, but I stand by what I said.

I was defending him based on a forensic examination of the motivation of some of his words. What has become very clear in the last 24 hours is that there are people who would slavishly defend him if he’d defenestrated a nun. To a lot of people Clarkson is not just a TV presenter. He has come symbolize the antidote to the namby pamby  political correctness that has paralysed the BBC resulting in programmes such as Wolf Hall, Question of Sport, Peaky Blinders and err Top Gear. He is a true champion of ordinary people. (Current fees for Repton, £7825 per term).  He is a bloke, he doesn’t care for feminism and other such poisons of the modern age, and as such he should be able to punch anyone he damn well likes. Anything else is simply lefty claptrap.

To cover my options here, I ought to point out that I have no idea what actually happened, and it may well be that an internal investigation may exonerate Clarkson. That is because I have possess something called self doubt. Self doubt is a quality utterly lacking in the #BringbackClarkson mob who have already made their mind up that Clarkson is either 1. Innocent or 2. Entirely justified in resorting to workplace assault. How fortunate it must be to be famous and rogueishly rightwing, knowing that your army of braindead blowhards will back you no matter what. If Clarkson does feel untouchable at times, I wonder whose fault that might be.

This post seeks neither to defend nor attack Jeremy Clarkson. But in workplaces up and down the country if you are accused of throwing a punch, you will in all likelihood be suspended. The #BringbackClarkson campaign is a morally repugnant apology for violence which simply illustrates that if you have enough fame and influence, far too many of your fans are prepared to give you a free ride.

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I am not going to have a go at Chelsea fans. As a Liverpool fan I am only too aware how dispiriting it is to have a club shamed by a minority. I am not a fan of Chelsea FC, their chairman, their ethos, their one eyed manager. Nonetheless I am pretty sure that the majority of their fans do not share the thuggish, racist values of the imbeciles seen in the recent video footage from Paris. And I don’t think anyone who has ever travelled on trains on a Saturday morning or early evening can honestly believe that this is a problem confined to Chelsea. The idea that loud, boorish, aggressive drunken tribalism is little more than “banter” is a national problem. Racism is just one of the many ways this can spill over. I travelled on train from Paris back to London last week where the entire carriage had to endure six guys shouting the place down with loud, sweary anti women and anti gypsy rants. Unsurprisingly not one person including me dared asked them to tone it down.

But football seems to be the main outlet for this socially disfiguring behaviour. On twitter grown adults, proud responsible parents, think it is ok to target footballers with illiterate abuse. The world game is run by Sepp Blatter, a corrupt, sexist, homophobic dullard who thinks nothing of handing the worlds biggest global event to those bastions of liberalism Russia and Qatar. The man is an ethical vacuum. Is it any wonder that the values which trickle down leave a lot to be desired?

I know a lot of people who refuse to tweet about football, such can be the vociferously nasty response. This aggression, this inability to rationalise life beyond your own undying love for one football club, is part of the same problem. By all means be disgusted by the behaviour of some racist Chelsea fans. But if you tweet foul mouthed abuse at strangers, if you honestly can’t see why people might be upset at the signing of Ched Evans or that it  is a complicated issue, if a simple game of football fills your heart with hatred rather than excitement, or if your own drunken behaviour renders public transport a more fearful, unpleasant environment for the public, then you are part of the same problem.

And as for racist football fans. You claim to be fans of a sport which, when played at the highest level, is the most multiethnic of all team sports. Chelsea themselves have enjoyed a decade of spectacular success based on the skills and talent of players and staff from across the globe. Do everyone a favour and take a step back, and then out of football, and leave it to people who appreciate the fact that the “beautiful game” is both beautiful, and just a game.

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Thoughts on 2014.

1. Watching the title slip out of Liverpool’s grasp was painful. In retrospect I should have enjoyed the rollercoaster more, rather than be consumed by anxiety. But I am glad I am not one of the schadenfreude kids who can’t find anything of interest in their own team so live their football viewing lives vicariously through the misfortune of others. What a sad state of affairs that is.

2. Germany 7 Brazil 1.      Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha.

3.  Touring as always was both overall enjoyable and a decidedly mixed bag. For every audience member wh0 was heard to observe “I’m glad I didn’t bring my wife, she hates shit stabbers as well”, there were plenty for whom my surprisingly gay schtick was not remotely a problem. The highlight of the tour and possibly my career was Glasgow. The lowlight was receiving a Facebook message from someone explaining in detail why she had walked out of my Kendal show at half time. I certainly couldn’t fault her grammar.

4. Nineteen years after I first set foot on stage, I won an award. Winning Best Club Comedian at the Chortle Awards should have felt like a life highlight, and I am certainly grateful to the three colleagues who congratulated me afterwards. But the whole experience was bizarre, not least being nominated in a year where I had spent most of it touring, once more seeing  all  of the great club comics ignored, and perhaps most of all being ushered into a room for an interview with a woman who neither took notes nor recorded and opened with the question “So club comedy. Is that where you go around on your own performing solo gigs?”  Among the people presenting awards was comedy genius Joey Essex, and relentless gag thief Bobby Davro.  Nonetheless, I haven’t won anything since the 1981 Croydon Under 12 chess championships, and so I was determined to enjoy the experience. That I did so is thanks to the something called booze, and a phone call to my parents in which I massively exaggerated the prestige of the award. And they fell for it.

5.   Being an uncle is great. Leo doesn’t appreciate my presents,and tends to time his loudest crying for when I am trying to watch University Challenge. Nonetheless the manner in which he defecates to his heart’s content, and gets very excited when there is a guy on the telly in an ill fitting white suit, suggests that he will undoubtedly become a man of substance.

6.      As usual my film of the year is the only one that I saw. “Pride” could easily have sunk without trace under a deluge of sub Priscilla campness.And there were one or two moments when it threatened to. Instead it was a wonderfully touching portrait of mid 80’s leftist activism which left me sobbing uncontrollably. Nice work.

7.     UKIP did well. It is a heartwarming story how these underdogs with virtually no financial backing have responded to being completely ignored in the media. They are the only people who are truly empathetic to  working people, and certainly the UKippers whom I know never shut up about their empathy for working class struggle.  Thanks to them I now know that I can cause flooding in Oxfordshire and traffic chaos on the M4. 2015 is going to be all kinds of fun.

8.        The day that Mahendra Singh Dhoni refused to condemn the racist chanting of Indian cricket fans against Moeen Ali, was the day that I could not with any conscience support India against England anymore. What a cowardly bellend that man is.

9.         The comedy highlight was the charity gig for  http://standagainstviolence.co.uk/ at the Comedy Store. The booking of Daniel Kitson as MC ensured a sell out crowd, and he was really very good indeed. If you get a chance to see this talented playwright, do take it. Despite his theatrical background, he proved more than a match for any of the more conventional comics. Nonetheless thanks to Jon Richardson, Kerry Godliman, Omid Djalili, and Terry Alderton for their outstanding help. A superb night.

10.         And so to my actual highlight of the year. Brain of London is a brutal competition involving World Champions, National Champions, Mastermind and Brain of Britain winners. Last year I was two blunders away from knocking Kevin Ashman out to reach the final 4.  Instead I could only mournfully regret what might have been. This year there were no regrets. I knocked Mark Grant out in Round 1 – an extraordinary man who despite having been brought up in Australia is the current Brain of Britain. My luck held firm in the 2nd round and I found myself in the semi finals once more. In the final round of the semi  I needed to answer all four of the following to reach the final.

Who wrote prolifically during an 11-year period in the Bastille, churning
out 11 novels, 16 novellas, 2 volumes of essays, a diary and 20 plays?

What was the unofficial term for individuals, typically but not exclusively Jews, who were denied permission to emigrate abroad by the authorities of the former Soviet Union?

What was the winner of the British Association of Toy Retailers ‘Toy of
the Year’ in 1998, winning again with a ‘babies’ version the following
year and then making another comeback to win again in 2012?

Oxygen was discovered independently of Joseph Priestley by Carl
Wilhelm Scheele, in what Northern European university city?

Luck, such a big part of quizzing, was in. And I reached the final. I didn’t win – Kevin Ashman and Dr. Ian Bayley finished ahead of me as one might expect. But to be mixing it with the elite was my uber nerdish highlight of the year.

Have a lovely 2015 X

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White Van Man.

Never mind a week, it seems that a few days is a very long time in politics. This time last week Emily Thornberry must have thought of her trip to Rochester is little more than a dispiriting window dressing exercise to support the Labour candidate in an utterly unwinnable seat. One ill-advised tweet later, her political world has caved in as the world and his wife lead the charge to get behind the values of “White Van Man”. It has been a triumph for UKIP, a catastrophe for Labour, and particularly for Ed Miliband. Watching him try and explain the respect he feels when he sees a white van, reminded me of my distant closeted past, trying to explain to boozed up friends what my perfect woman looked and sounded like.. I sounded unconvincing and ridiculous. Miliband sounded far worse.

It was a stupid tweet. MP’s should really know better. However it was by no means the crime of the century and it is emblematic of the complete vacuum at the heart of Labour politics, that not one of them could muster up the skills to mount any kind of defence. I didn’t even see the white van as an issue. As a man whose boiler, plumbing, electrics and car go frequently on the blink, I am a man whose existence is utterly dependent on hardworking skilful people who drive a white van. I am sure I am not alone in not only refusing to look down on white van drivers, but seeing them as utterly invaluable.And often very hot.  The thing that got me was the England flags. Not the flag itself, I’m not by any means unpatriotic. Although I have always thought of myself as British first and English second, I don’t scoff at people who see their identity differently. It was the fact that there were three flags. Bit much perhaps? People of course are entitled to make their own decisions on how the front of their house is festooned. But surely people are also entitled to look at it and think “trying too hard”. Or “eyesore”.  We get it, you love England to the very core of your soul. Nothing wrong with that. But one flag would have done the trick, and allowed more natural light into the house.

Thornberry’s frankly idiotic mistake was to tweet without comment, thus allowing anyone to apply their own motives to it. Maybe the tweet was done with the snobbish contempt of an archetypal Islingtonite out of touch with working class aspirations. Maybe it was done with the resigned air of a Labour canvasser wondering what on earth would ever make a triple flag man vote Labour. It is likely that we will never know. But let’s for the moment assume that it’s the former…..

If it is the former, then I’m afraid it seems to mirror the crude class based  “punching down” that I have increasingly noticed in club comedy in the last few years. I am fully aware of my cosseted public school educated background, where Mummy and Daddy have always been there for me,and it means that I bristle at broad sweeps made by some comedians at sections of society less cosseted than myself. Some of the things I have heard said about Greggs, Lidl, Aldi, their customers, and the homeless,  would shame the Bullingdon Club. I have heard  a routine about sterilising “scallies”, another where the word “vermin” was used, another using “scum” and any number about people who have the audacity to choose trackies as their leisure wear. Heaven forbid that we ever aim our punches is a more upwardly direction. I’m not for censorship, and I’m aware that somebody could probably forensically destroy my material. I do believe though that if Emil Thornberry’s tweet was from a dark place of nasty, out of touch condescension, then it is part of a wider culture that many comedians are actively contributing to.

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It’s been a month………….

It has been a month since I last blogged. Quite a lot has happened in that month, so here goes.

1. I have finished another radio series. It’s called Paul Sinha’s History Revision and it is an attempt at trying to be humorous about the incidents of genocide, war and slavery that have led us to where we are now. It starts on Radio 4 1830 on Wednesday November 26th, and runs for four weeks. I hope you like it.

2. I tweeted a joke. And it went properly viral and at the last count was retweeted 6,279 times. That was a strange day, having the joke stolen, being accused of stealing it, and also having it retweeted by some accounts which were clearly supporters of ISIS. I’m not a supporter of ISIS, and find many of their views uncomfortably homophobic.

3. Comedian Andrew Lawrence had his “Andrew Lawrence” moment. Personally I don’t care about his politics, much as I disagree with him. He is entitled to his views, I am entitled to find them trite and simplistic. I do care that he has created  a category called “ethnic comedians”, and I do care that he is not being entirely honest. The industry including the BBC has treated him very, very well. He used to have his face on the side of Edinburgh taxi cabs. If you are not quite the flavour of the month that you once were (and Andrew has been a quite brilliant comedian in the past), it seems rather ungrateful to lash out. Also every comedian, regardless of ethnicity, is entitled to use their background as a basis for their comedy. Interesting to see where this one goes. One thing is for sure, a lot of his new found fans won’t really get his exquisitely florid use of English if they do see him live. Reading their comments, I have never been prouder to be a Libtard.

4. I went to Rome. A quick fleeting visit, I was utterly overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. Ever since I heard of Stendhal syndrome http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stendhal_syndrome , I have wondered if such an over reaction is possible. Rome was perhaps the closest I have come.

5. I went to the European Quizzing Championships in Bucharest. Bucharest does not have anywhere near the beauty of Rome. It does have much cheaper beer.For the purposes of a superbly run quiz tournament, this was far more important.  I finished 18th in the individuals which was slightly better than usual. I was part of an England B quartet who were valiant runner up in a Cup competition. The best result of the weekend though was the pairs in which The Governess and I finished 7th in Europe, an agonising one point behind the pair in 5th.  The number of times I looked at Anne and thought “How did you know that ?” was matched by the number of times she did the same to me. And that is what good pairs quizzing is meant to be like. A great finish to an absolutely memorable weekend. A week on, my liver still hurts.

6.  I have two tour dates this week. Runcorn on Friday has pretty much sold out. Manchester has most definitely not. Not quite sure why the sales are sluggish in what has been a refreshingly decent selling tour. But they are. Please help !


Much love x

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