Tuesday 20 August 2013

For I will consider my Cat Elliott

Most people think that Elliott is named after T.S. Eliot, the author of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. This is untrue. Elliott ("two ls, two ts") is the name that was assigned to him by the Mayhew Animal Home, "Obviously," we were told as we took him away, "you'll want to come up with your own name for him." Why? Elliott is a perfect name.

Elliott and I share many character traits. We are both scruffy, bad-tempered, lazy, cowardly and habit-driven. Like me, he is stoical and avoids confrontations at every cost. Like him, I am both introverted and attention-seeking. 

It is probably no coincidence that we're so alike. I am his principal role model, and I can see myself reflected in him. In some ways he is the truest reflection of me there is. Unlike self-portraits that I consciously construct myself, he doesn't seek to flatter me. The status relationship is coolly practical rather than emotional. His affection for me is entirely on his terms rather than mine. I have far more to learn from him about what I will put up with than he from me.

He was born on New Year's Day 2008, making him, in cat years, almost exactly the same age as me.  When he was little, he was skittish and shy, but he is entering a more comfortable middle age. His reputation among local cats is now assured, this having been achieved not through screeching fights and growling stand-offs, but rather by having the patience to simply wait until he was the largest cat in the neighbourhood.

Although he remains just as messy and grumpy as he was when he was a kitten, he has lately taken up some new hobbies. He spends much more of his time on windowsills, showing himself off and keeping a close eye on the weather. When out and about, he is more active now than when he was a younger. He catches birds, plays with string and goes on adventures. By far the most remarkable of his new achievements is his sudden enthusiasm for climbing, which has really taken off in the last three months. Although he doesn't have the physique for lithe verticalism, he will propel himself up fences and trees like an unguided rocket.

Seeing myself reflected in Elliott, I find it encouraging that it is not too late to learn fresh skills and adopt new habits, while simultaneously reaping the rewards of apathy.

Friday 9 August 2013

I am a Filthy Pervert

It's time I confessed: I am a filthy pervert.

I've been spending too much time online, returning to the same few websites. What began as an unhealthy obsession has degraded into a debilitating addiction. After each session, I feel clammy and ashamed.

I've been reading Edinburgh Fringe Festival reviews. All of them. Not just reviews of my friends' shows. Not just the comedy shows. Not just five-star or one-star reviews. All of them. And there's no shortage. The more of these I read, the less I know about the shows, about the Fringe, about criticism, or about creativity in general. My enthusiasm for life in general diminishes with every mouseclick. Yet on I go, ushered on by a demon wearing a lanyard: Broadway Baby, Three Weeks, The List, The Scotsman, The Skinny, Fringe Review...

I begin each review with a quantum of curiosity, but with each passing sentence, that initial interest sours into irritation, then boils into anger. Then I hate myself, rub my eyes, remind myself that I need a holiday, and click on the next review.

I confessed my addiction to Alex Fradera at his birthday drinks last night. He advised me to take a place on the next step of the critical staircase, and begin reviewing the reviewers. This proposal only makes sense if reviews of reviewers are themselves reviewed by higher reviewers, and so on, up the pyramid, until the eye of an all-illuminating God delivers his final judgment upon the entire edifice: "Yes" or, more likely, "No".

While the content of the reviews is invariably at hilarious odds with the star-rating (which is presumably added by a hungover editor afterwards), it's hard to categorise them in any other way with equanimity.

Five- and four-star reviews tend to numb my muscles and give me the sweats. Like a cake covered in too much sugary icing, the delighted superlatives bury the content of the show. Rarely do gushing reviews negotiate or explain anything. I feel as if I am a weary parent being dragged into a toyshop by a spoilt child. "C'mon! This is where you must go!" It's off-putting.

I have far more sympathy for the recipients of one- and two-star reviews. I like to think that somewhere underneath all those Anglo Saxon sighs, tuts and eye-rolling, I might excavate an idea of that performance that had (at the very least) good intentions and a plan (however misconceived) that someone once thought was worth pursuing. I may be wrong. I can only guess. I will never know. A kitten dying of cancer is less sad than a world-weary two-star review.

The vast majority of reviews, however, sit clumped together in the middle, like an embolism in the bloodstream. These reviews are the ones most likely to include erudite references, make extravagant assertions about the purpose of the artform, or to compare a show you haven't seen to another show you haven't seen. Even-handedness erodes to box-ticking analytics.

Not all reviews are badly written, sneering, unhelpful, narcissistic, biassed or bland. But all reviews have that depressing aim of attempting to summarise, in an easily digestible nugget, the divine delirium, the insane miracle that is in the nature of every performance, good or bad. Why, then can I not stop reading them?

When will my perverted gaze be satisfied? When will I finally be able to turn off my computer monitor, open the curtains and face the refreshing light of day knowing that I have read enough? What am I searching for in all these reviews? Perhaps I'm hoping to attain, by means of a reductio ad absurdam, an ultimate glut, a point at which I will have transcended, despite myself, any criticism myself. This is the stratagem of the smoker or the alcoholic who attempts to poison their body so much that the notion of any further intake causes them to shudder. Is it possible for me to reach that point, is there no limit to the quantity of toxic material I can digest?

I'm certainly becoming desensitised. Words repeated endlessly leak significance until they become almost empty syllables. And the claim that the opinion of critics is meaningless becomes itself meaningless when repeated enough. The reviewers have me ensnared in this paradox. I have joined them, these accursed souls, sitting in their specially reserved circle of hell, leaning back in their chairs in the dark, with their arms crossed, drool on their chins and glazed eyes.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Violence in Comedy

Did you hear about the shrimp that went to the prawn's cocktail party? He pulled a mussel.*


I've had it on my mind for a while now how strange it is that the language of comedy draws so heavily on the language of violence – primarily fighting, warfare, rape and murder. A punchline is never recited; it is delivered, like a blow to the audience. A salvo of rat-a-tat jokes is aimed with razor-sharp accuracy, with quickfire delivery. Uncompromising performers pull no punches and their jokes hit their targets.

On arrival, an audience who is unprepared to laugh have their guard up. These defences must be broken down, bit by bit, until they are left helpless with mirth. They're at the comedian's mercy. They're being slaughtered. They're killed. If the routine fails, however, then it's the comic who dies on stage.

Successful shows are often a knockout, a hit, a smash, a smash hit.  A mega-successful show is a "blockbuster", using the word for the large aerial bombs used by the Allies in the firebombing of Hamburg in the Second World War, each literally wiping out a city block.

I find there to be something a little unhappy about the way the aggression metaphor is pursued so relentlessly. Sometimes I wonder if there exists any other way to describe the way comedy works. Must an audience be beaten into submission to get a laugh? Is this trend a reflection of a macho sexism that persists throughout the comedy scene? Or are comedians, all haunted by an impossible dream that impels them – the dream of a perfect joke, a perfect show – merely acting out the scenario of reaching their goal at last, and only by invoking the finality of death can they adequately express it? A desperate and dark fantasy, that.

I'd be intrigued to know if the same language is pursued among non-English speakers. Either way, whenever I read a tweet bragging that "We killed it last night,"  or "I nailed it," or "We stormed it," from someone who in real life is the sweetest, most generous person you've ever met, I shudder slightly.

* Ken Dodd, of course.