What’s the story: mourning Tories?

by Garry Abbott

fish in barrel copy

There’s been a lot of talk and chatter this week on the airwaves about Ed Miliband’s need to construct a more coherent ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ if he is going to win at the next election. He has been accused by some party supporters and critics of ‘sitting back’ and letting the Tories dig their own graves. Apparently ahead in the opinion polls (who actually does them?) – even his own head of policy was secretly recorded at a focus group saying his policies had been novelty, cynical and few and far between.

But what could be more cynical I wonder, than the accepted conversation about an opposition leader who needs to ‘come up with’ (i.e. ‘invent’) some kind of narrative in order to present some option to the electorate? Is it just me who finds the rhetoric of ‘story-telling’ both patronising and worrying?

It smacks of political elitism in an age where we are regularly told that they are losing touch with the people – yet they don’t see that this kind of circular politics is exactly why. We shouldn’t have politicians and parties who are content to sit back for five years and watch the country descend into wreck and ruin, just because it means they will have an easier job winning votes at the next election. The hope is that by May 2015 we will all be begging for change (or at least most of us), at which point Miliband will just stand up and loudly exhort through his nostrils “I will save you”. Similarly, we will have the likes of Clegg, making back-of-throat guttural utterances about how they are the only party who can be trusted to reign in the Tories, after spending 5 years propping them up.

An example of a successful opposition ‘story’ that I heard quoted by a labour supporting media expert, was David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. In political terms, they think that was the bomb. Do you remember that? Cameron telling us that instead of the state doing things for us, we basically need to do it all ourselves (yet still pay taxes). If that’s the kind of narrative Miliband is lacking, then I don’t want to hear it!

There should be no need for a story. The problems are evident for anyone who has even an iota of socialism about them, or as I like to call it, common decency and compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. There should be no need to wait five years to hear this. If he and his party were truly passionate about their cause and actually represented an alternative, they shouldn’t rest or tire from doing whatever they can, whenever they can, however  they can to promote it and stop the shameless pillaging of the poor and vulnerable by the current government. As it is, the little we hear from them is often just slightly amended echoes of right-wing policies with no firm commitments to reverse the damage done. Same ideas, different faces, all ugly.

So here’s a little story for Miliband – he is welcome to use it if he likes:

 

Ed went to the fair.

There once was a boy called Ed who went to a funfair. He walked around the funfair, looking at all the games. He looked at the coconut shy, and whack-a-rat, and test-your-strength, and hook-a-duck, but they all looked really hard, and poor Ed couldn’t decide where to spend his money. Eventually he decided not to bother and to go home and spend his money on lashings of ginger beer instead. But then, just as he was about to leave, he saw one last game.

A red faced man called David was standing on a soap box brandishing a sawn off shotgun in one hand and a box of cartridges in the other, shouting “Fish in a barrel! Who can shoot the fish in a barrel? One winner only!”

“Hey mister” he said, “what do I have to do?”

“Simple,” replied David, “in this barrel of water I have placed a fish. Here is a shotgun. All you need to do is kill the fish and you win.”

“What do I win?” asked the wide eyed Ed.

“It’s a surprise.”

No one else at the fair had played this game before, and before long a huge crowd had gathered around him, waiting to see what happened.

“Why has no one played this game before?” asked Ed, suspiciously. It seemed too easy, and Ed has his smarts.

“Because each cartridge costs one million pounds a go, and none of these plebs have that kind of money”.

“Hmmm” said Ed, pondering the situation, for you see, Ed did have one million pounds to spend, and some more, but he still wasn’t sure.

“Go on!” shouted the crowd, “we want to see it done! We can’t afford to have a go ourselves!”

What was he to do?! He really wanted to win the game, but he didn’t really want to spend the money or any effort on it. What if he missed the fish? What if the game was rigged and the shotgun blew his tiny face off?

Ed thought about it long and hard… for about five years. By that time, everybody had lost interest, and the fish had died of old age.

Ed asked David, “so, does that mean I win?”, to which David replied “Yes! You’ve won! Well done” as he removed the dead fish from the barrel and replaced it with a new, live and wriggling one.

“What do I win?” asked Ed.

“This barrel, this fish, this shotgun and cartridges, and this entire funfair! ”

And then David walked off into the sunset, able to retire a happy and rich man.

Ed looked down at the barrel with the new fish. He picked up the shotgun and ammunition in his hands, before standing up on the soap box and declaring:

“Roll up – roll up! Fish in a barrel! Only 1 million pounds a shot!” and once again, the crowd gathered.

THE END.

 

Sit Down Stand Up #1 Spontaneity

Blog warning:

To ease you into this, if you are so good as to read it, I should explain a little here about my influences and reasons. I recently went to watch the brilliant Stewart Lee in Buxton perform his ‘Much-a-Stew-about-nothing’ show (http://www.stewartlee.co.uk/) and it reconnected me to the notions of narrative in stand-up comedy and the power of comedy and narrative in general. I was very fortunate to follow this up with a chance encounter with a friend who lent me one of Lee’s books with transcripts of his previous live shows including foot-notes on his technique and inspirations. Now, I have no interest in doing stand-up comedy myself, and it’s only recently with my writing credits on Radio BBC4 Extra’s ‘Newsjack’ that I’ve written anything purposefully comedic at all. This blog, as I say in the ‘About Me’ section is intended for trying things out, for things that don’t slot easily anywhere else, and shameless self promotion. This specific blog therefore is totally the result of having immersed myself in alternative comedy for a month or so and wanting to try my hand at writing the kind of narrative that experts like Lee have so brilliantly crafted. I liked reading the transcribed shows, they worked on the page, so I figured, having no interest in actually standing up and saying these things into a microphone, I would try and write a brief narrative and put a ‘stand-up’ spin on it. I don’t really care if it smacks of influence or emulation – that’s why I’ve done it, to try and find out a bit of how this works for myself, even if it is only to conclude that it doesn’t work at all.

Not surprisingly, the very subject of not wanting to ever do stand-up and an embarrassing attempt I once made at making a joke on stage has formed the theme of this experiment. Also, like most comedy narratives, it is an exaggerated account of a true story, with some not true things thrown in.

With that said, I hope you can forgive me if you don’t either a) find it funny or b) even finish reading it. I also hope you can forgive me for my apologetic introduction. I would be interested to hear what you think so please leave a comment here or anywhere I might see it – but preferably not attached to a brick through my window.

***

So I was thinking about Stand-up comedy. Not actually doing it. No way. I can’t think of anything more terrifying. Actually I can, I can think of lots of things more terrifying, like crawling into a small hole under a tree and then realising I’m stuck there forever. What I mean is, I can’t think of anything more terrifying within the realm of public performance, except perhaps some kind of performance arts piece involving testicles and leeches. What I mean is, I just don’t like the idea of doing stand up comedy, which is interesting seeing as I’m no stranger to taking to the stage. I sing in a band, I sometimes even talk (a bit) between songs. Granted it is usually only to state the name of the next song and say thank you for the applause from the last (regardless if any actually happened), but it’s still talking into a microphone in front of other people all the same.

I think I may have shocked myself out of trying to riff funny back at my Dad’s wedding some years ago now. I was performing with my Brother and a make-shift band for the evening. It got to the point where my Dad and my Step Mum where trying to encourage dancing as most of the guests had spent much of the first half of our set in another room. Not coincidentally, the room with the buffet. Ah, the buffet, it always wins in the end. No manner of art can win against the lure of cheese & pineapple on sticks. Maybe that’s the ultimate aim of all art – to become a credible challenger to the dominating presence of a buffet?

Anyway, we had pretty much already played our set to the few people who could resist the lure of questionable coleslaw, and now the others had all filled their stomachs with cherry tomatoes and breaded bits of chicken, they were ready to be entertained (I like buffet’s, but am always suspicious now of anything in breadcrumbs having once accidentally eaten a miserable fish goujon thinking it was going to be chicken. It seems to me that in one sense, covering something with breadcrumbs is as good as disguising it in something neutral and bland for fear that its true identity will be discovered, a bit like when Jim Davidson hosted Big-Break). It didn’t seem to matter much to the quiche stuffed revellers that we had already been playing for an hour, but it was my Dad’s wedding, so we carried on.

About half way through the set, while the crowd of cold-chicken-leg fuelled party-goers sat watching and talking amongst themselves, my Dad and my Step Mum braved the dance floor. It wasn’t a ‘first dance’ kind of thing as I remember – well it was, in the sense that no one else was dancing, as they were all probably too full of limp salad and tiny sausages, but it wasn’t the first dance. It was just a dance, I think calculated by my Dad to try and encourage others to do the same. I picked up on this vibe in an almost Jedi like moment of mental connection, I knew what he was trying to do, and I liked it. By this time, my older brother (who has always had a more natural disposition on stage and a greater ability than I to say things coherently in general), had already cracked a joke to rapturous laughter at some earlier stage. I think it was about eating, drinking and being Mary… I can’t remember, or it was about three nuns in a boat. Either way, I had the notion that if there was ever a time to try my hand at saying something spontaneous though a microphone, it was now, in the bosom of my extended family and friends who would accept me out of (if nothing else) politeness to my Father.

So something was sparking in my mind, my Dad was dancing (a rare and unwieldy sight) and in the ether, from somewhere beyond, I could hear a voice saying, “It’s ok son, it’s ok, this is the time to make a joke about my bad dancing in order to get the other people dancing, even though they are struggling against the weight of many, many mini sausage rolls, now is the time. Look, I am your Father.” (That last joke only works if you pronounce ‘look’ in the same way as ‘fluke’ – which people in Staffordshire do, even though none of my family are actually from Staffordshire, but that doesn’t matter, as this disembodied voice of my Father encouraging me to talk on the microphone didn’t actually happen, and if it did, only I could hear it, so I would have got the Star Wars / Stokey accent reference anyway, so there.)

And I thought, yes! Yes, there is a joke in there somewhere… There is some vague notion of my Dad dancing and not being very good at it, and other people not dancing, who presumably can only be as bad, but probably better. I admit, I hadn’t really nailed it at this stage, but sweating, drunk and exhausted from being nearly two hours into a live set, I walked up to the microphone and looked out at the expectant faces in the large function room, my Father and my new Step Mum still standing alone in the centre of the dance floor, looking at me as if to say “now is the time! You can do it! Improvise!” and I said something along the lines of:

“They say that before people decide whether to dance or not they judge this by the least ability of the people already on the dance floor and so if my Dad is dancing, then you all should be too…”

It was a scene reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins’ one hundred and eleventh birthday speech in the Lord of the Rings where he declares “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve” and the crowd looks on in confusion while they try and deconstruct the meaning and whether or not it was an insult. I say it was reminiscent of that, because in another way, it was nothing like that all, having none of the wit, charm or craftsmanship that Tolkien possessed in unfair quantities. The only bit that was similar, was the crowd looking back at me in confused indifference, trying to work out what I’d just said, and if it made any sense. Which, it didn’t.

I mean it could have done. In hindsight. Oh yes, in hindsight, given the 15 years or so since this happened and my development as a writer, I can look at this sentence and edit it down to the following: “If my Dad’s dancing, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. Have a dance.” Which isn’t really that funny either, but as light banter, would have been more succinct and may have raised a titter. It also has the added benefit of letting the audience fill in the blanks for themselves. It is implied that it is about ability, rather than force-fed, showing respect to their intelligence. To give credit to my Dad, he seemed to get the intent behind my garbled declaration and gave a pantomime look to the crowd as if to say “he’s right you know!”, although this may have actually been to say “I don’t know either… Maybe if you just come up and dance he won’t try and speak again.”

I was lucky really that no one took me to task on my comment. Thank God there were no hecklers at my Dad’s wedding. It wouldn’t have taken much. The first comment that springs to mind is, “Who says that?” as in, “Who says that before people decide to dance they judge the least ability of other people on the dance floor?” To which I would have had to reply, “I don’t know, just people, old wise people on a mountain somewhere…” and they may have said, “Why do they say that?” to which I could retort, “because I asked them – I anticipated that you would all spend more time inhaling bread sticks and tiramisu then you would listening to my band play for several hours at my own Dad’s wedding, and then come in here and sit watching us play it all again without even attempting to dance, and as such, I travelled to a wise man in Mongolia, yeah, Mongolia because it sounds mysterious and that’s where wise men on mountains live, and I found the wisest man, on the highest mountain, and I said to him – why is that people don’t dance sometimes? And he told me why. But to be sure, I went to the next highest mountain and found the next wisest man, and asked him the same, and he gave me the same answer. I repeated this exercise several times to make sure I had a consensus of opinion from multiple sources, hence why I referred to the plural ‘they’ in my rendering of this Eastern wisdom. It wasn’t just my panicking mind reaching desperately for an elusive third party with which to frame my witticism, it was the result of many months of hard travel and research.”

Of course, the next rebuke may have been, “but what does it mean? The order of the words you chose to speak, doesn’t really make sense does it Garry? They ‘judge the least ability’? Did you mean, they judge the ability of others dancing, and if they deem themselves to be similar or better, they may feel more comfortable and participate in the awkward social situation without fear of embarrassment?” to wit I would have to concede, “Yes, that’s basically what I meant, but as demonstrated by your lengthy interpretation of my intended observation, that doesn’t make for much of a snappy one liner to say between songs does it? So all I knew, was that I wanted to say something that meant the same as what you just said, but had to be shorter, which in my current heightened, adrenalin and alcohol fuelled mindset, I couldn’t quite achieve. I only hope that this protracted conversation with you, the imaginary heckler, has clarified this point to all the other guests here and we can move on from this unfortunate and ill conceived attempt at spontaneity and enjoy the rest of the evening…”

And I looked up from this exchange, feeling I had vindicated myself from any embarrassment or misunderstanding only to find that the room was now empty, the crowd, impatient as they were for me to stop talking to myself retrospectively from the future, had slinked off back to the next room, because a waiter had just brought out some more, hot, unidentifiable breaded goods that someone suspected was garlic mushrooms… And we all like garlic mushrooms don’t we? Except for those people who don’t. In fact, they say that those people who aren’t sure about breaded goods on a buffet judge themselves by the least ability of others to decide whether or not to eat them, don’t they? Yeah they do. That’s what ‘they’ say, and I know that because I went to Mongolia to ask them.

THE END.