My war with Frankie Boyle

When edgy comedy is just bullying.

In the past few weeks, I briefly became a hot topic on Twitter; I was in a couple of national newspapers; I was written about exhaustively on every comedy website of note; and I became enough of a talking point - at least in certain small, Soho-based circles - that quite a few conversations I've had have begun with people asking, "How have you been?" You could say that I've been the centre of attention, which is what all comedians want, in a nutshell. So that's the good news.

The less good news is that I got all that attention by being called a c*** by a better-known television comedian, Frankie Boyle, in a tweet. This word is deemed so offensive that I typed it here with the asterisks already in place, rather than waiting for it to be censored, in case I should upset the feelings of a vulnerable sub-editor. I'm only half-joking.

A fair few people don't even like to look at that word on a page, let alone hear it. Imagine having it applied to you in full view of a large number of your peers by someone so influential that thousands of people will be inclined instinctively to agree without looking into the situation. That's been my month.

Shock doctrine

What I did to occasion the anger of my colleague was to write a blog, some months ago, which had belatedly come to his attention. In it, I remarked on how he had been involved in controversy after making jokes about Down's syndrome and then refusing to apologise to the mother of a sufferer who was in his audience. I wasn't the only comedian to feel uneasy about the impression of our industry that this incident gave to the general public. Several publicly criticised Boyle, feeling that, this time, he had gone too far in pursuit of shock laughs. But, for some reason, it was I who got on his wrong side. I'm reluctant to stir up the subject all over again, but it is a pressing one and I would like to clarify what I was trying to say: not about that comic in particular, but about comedy.

Stand-up has long been regarded as a kind of outlaw form of entertainment that exists somewhere on the boundaries of good taste and likes nothing better than to stray to the other side. This has made it one of the most successful art forms - for want of a less pretentious word - of the new century. And it has managed to hold on to this maverick reputation in spite of becoming more and more mainstream. You can now tune in to shows such as Mock the Week on BBC2 and hear gags that many comics would have shied away from, even in working men's clubs, not too long ago. I think most of us would agree that this is a step forward. We're adults, we know that a joke is a joke, we can choose to watch things or not, and so on.

The trouble is, if you don't draw a line somewhere, what may have started out as "edginess" can quickly turn into mean-spirited bullying of the weakest members of society. What's an acceptable subject for comedy? Those suffering from degenerative diseases? The Holocaust? Rape victims? I've seen all of these subjects covered by comedians in the past fortnight alone.

It is hard not to wonder whether comedy's freedom of speech is as much of a step forward as we thought, especially if all it means is that a largely white, middle-class audience gets to laugh at other people whose lives haven't turned out as well as theirs; or if, in the process, it allows stereotypes to be hammered home that comedy should be breaking down, rather than reinforcing.

Twitter trial

I am as guilty as anyone else of taking on soft targets to get laughs and saying things on the spur of the moment that, in hindsight, sound awful. I didn't intend to vilify the stand-up comic who called me a "coot" (as I paraphrased it to my mother), or anyone else who has let something slip while desperately chasing laughs, as we all do.

I am also aware - as my adversary pointed out - that I've done things that suggest a lack of integrity (advertising cider, appearing on shows that I knew weren't very good and giving a private performance for the Pope, though one of those may not be true).

I think that comedians should have a debate about the limits of their freedom to talk about things that could hurt defenceless people. If there are no limits, then fair enough. But live comedy might end up losing a bit of its faddishness. People will eventually tire of paying good money to see something that amounts to a crude exchange of insults. I mean, if I want to see that, I could just go on Twitter.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.
LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

“In America nobody cares what writers think about anything”: Paul Auster on art, life and Donald Trump

The cult author speaks on the sudden rebirth of American activism and writing “the book of his life”.

Not every author gets a trick from ­David Blaine as a birthday present – but then, Paul Auster himself knows a thing or two about magic. Auster’s work has always been distinguished by the seductive games its author plays with the art of writing. His first published prose book, The Invention of Solitude, was both a memoir and an interrogation of the art of memoir. There is the clever intertextuality of his now-classic New York Trilogy, the eccentric absurdism of The Music of Chance. City of Glass, the first volume of the New York Trilogy, has just been adapted for the stage, and will open at the Lyric Hammersmith in London next month. He is a writer who pushes the boundaries of whatever form he turns to: he is also a bestselling author with a cultish fan base. Blaine has been a fan, I learn, since Mr Vertigo – Auster’s novel of magic and illusion – appeared in the Nineties. A chance encounter at a restaurant not long after the book was published led to a friendship, and some real-life magic in honour of Auster’s 70th birthday last month.

But then chance has always been at the heart of his work – not least 4 3 2 1, which he tells me is “the book of my life”. Before I hear about Blaine’s turn, Auster and I return to his teenage years, to the moment he has said absolutely changed his life. He was 14 and at summer camp. A group of boys went out on a hike and got caught in a thunderstorm. As they tried to shelter from the weather, the boy right beside him was struck by lightning and killed.

It is a story he has written of in The Red Notebook, a collection of true tales which appeared in 1995; he returned to it in Winter Journal, a memoir published five years ago. In 4 3 2 1, the near-900-page epic he has just produced, the lightning strike appears again. When I mention that summer day nearly six decades ago, I misremember the story and say that the other boy was a few feet away from Auster. He swiftly corrects me. “Inches,” he says. “A few inches.” It’s no wonder that since then he has been fascinated by the power of chance. “It changed my life,” he says of that moment. “I mean, it opened up a whole chasm of reflection about the instability of the world, the precariousness of reality itself and the . . . lack of a line between life and death.

“You’re alive one second, you’re dead the next, struck down by lightning. Which has a kind of cosmic force to it, doesn’t it?”

That cosmic force is in full view in 4 3 2 1, which is not, in fact, a single novel, but four novels of four possible lives. Archie Ferguson is the protagonist of each book: but in each book, Archie takes a slightly different path early on – and the whole of the rest of his life changes as a result. He is the son of the energetic Rose Adler and the rather more staid Stanley Ferguson in every iteration of the story; every boy grows up in New Jersey, the metropolis of Manhattan beckoning in the near distance. His father is an appliance salesman, but in one story he is successful and Ferguson’s life goes one way; in another he is unsuccessful, and Ferguson’s life goes another way; and so on. The stories are interwoven, so the reader must keep all four Fergusons in her head at once. It is this layered effect that demonstrates how easily fractured a life can be. One Ferguson is held up against another, creating a palimpsest of voices and sensibilities.

Auster’s connection to 4 3 2 1 runs deep but the attachment is emotional rather than actual, he says. One of the Fergusons is killed by a bolt of lightning; in another thread, the protagonist’s dearest friend, Artie Federman, dies of a brain aneurism at summer camp. And, Auster admits, “You combine those two things, and they carry the emotional weight of the real story for me. And I think that event is what’s at the heart of the book. I mean, that’s the autobiographical source: being haunted by the death of that boy when I was 14. And I think this is what the whole novel is ultimately about.”

Ferguson is born in the same year as Auster, and in the same state; but this is not, the author stresses, an autobiographical novel. “It’s my chronology and my geography, but except for physical traits, it’s not really autobiographical in that sense.” Yes, he was athletic as a kid, as all the Fergusons are; they share a love of music and gravitate towards writing. “But so what?” he shrugs. “I mean, needless to say, a writer’s always drawing on his own experiences, so I could not have written the passages of Archie 3 going to London in 1967 without myself having been here then and smelled the smells of that London which doesn’t exist any more – because coal is not burning in the air the way it was then; Player’s cigarettes are not permeating the atmosphere; I don’t smell the damp wool that I used to smell.” He sounds perhaps a little regretful when he mentions cigarettes; a long-time smoker, he has turned to vaping. It’s been a while since he and I have met, and there’s a little more silver in his swept-back hair. In photographs Auster can look forbidding; in person, he has a quick laugh and a warm and easy manner, even when he’s still getting over jet lag.

Archie Ferguson is just hitting his teens when John F Kennedy is elected as president; in his first iteration, he is gripped by Kennedy from the first time he sees him on television and his fascination fuels a career as a journalist, one who reports from the front lines of the tumultuous Sixties, from the student protests on college campuses across the United States to the riots in Newark and at Attica Prison in upstate New York. Now, in 2017, a time of political turmoil, 4 3 2 1 offers a vivid reminder of the activism of those years – though that was never in its creator’s plan. He began the novel in spring 2013 “just two months”, he notes, “after Obama started his second term. So the next election was really far off. No one was thinking about it yet.” The book began life with a different title, too: Ferguson. A year later, however, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and the title, Auster says, became “unusable”. It was as if history was running to catch up with him as he wrote. But that, he says, was always the point.

“I was trying to show how simultaneous all these things were,” he says of those tumultuous days. “I mean, everybody knows about the Selma-to-Montgomery march; there was the 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, and it’s a part of American history that we’re all familiar with. Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. But what everyone forgets is that the very next day, [Lyndon B] Johnson sent the marines in to Vietnam, and the real escalation began. That’s what’s interesting.” Auster’s political consciousness was awakened. “I watched it growing,” he says of the build-up to the Vietnam War. “It was quite extraordinary. I graduated from high school in ’65, but even before the Gulf of Tonkin [when a US destroyer exchanged fire with North Vietnamese torpedo boats in August 1964], before the real declaration of hostilities, we were there and we were doing things.”

He recalls what sounds like Sixties anti-communist propaganda. “A woman came to our high school to talk, a photographer named Dickey Chapelle. I remember her – she was giving a very pro-American, anti-communist speech about the importance of fighting in Vietnam. It was really a rabble-rouser speech. Within two or three years, she was dead. She was blown up, covering the war.” Chapelle, the first female war photographer to be killed in action, died in November 1965 when one of the US marines with whom she was patrolling triggered a tripwire that sent shrapnel flying. She was buried with full military honours. “It was a jolt,” Auster says now of her death; his tone is still shocked. “I mean, I knew things were going on, but she was so specific.”

Vietnam is a flashpoint in 4 3 2 1, as is the issue of race. Just after the US bombing of North Vietnam begins, Ferguson 1 – the one who becomes a journalist – asks a girl called Rhonda Williams out on a date; Rhonda turns him down, because she’s black and he’s white. As Auster writes, it was Rhonda who “politely kicked him in the face and taught him that the America he wanted to live in didn’t exist – and probably never would”. Auster points to America’s present predicament (for surely we must call it that) as a sign of Ferguson’s despair. The election of Barack Obama, he says, “revived racism in America in ways that we couldn’t have predicted, but that was the ultimate effect – that they couldn’t stand the idea that a black man was in office. And I tried to understand that those people hated him as much as I hate Trump. It’s true; and it’s very hard to understand that.” Wistfully, he recalls the 44th president of the United States. “Such a dignified, intelligent, graceful, worthy man, who always acquitted himself with the most elegant poise: really, a remarkable human being. We’d never had anybody like that. And a scandal-free administration for eight years. Everything above board. No crooks in there. No one on the take. But they hated him, and this gave us Trump, in the long run.” For a while, he says, he was one of those who held out hope for a Hillary Clinton victory, but: “Brexit was the jolt that made me understand that there was a good chance Trump would win.”

 

***

 

Auster has been vocal in his criticism of the new administration. It’s one of the reasons he is glad to be in Europe, because he sees the trip as an opportunity to raise his voice publicly against Donald Trump: “In America nobody cares what writers think about anything,” he says. He traces Trump’s mendacity back to the “birther” lie: the new president’s former insistence that Obama was born in Kenya.

“You know, in retrospect we can see this as Trump’s first great venture into political life using the big lie techniques of Joseph Goebbels. You just keep saying the same lie again and again and again, and people will start to think there’s something to it. And it’s frightening to know how weak-minded people are. Not everybody, but huge swaths of the population start to soften. ‘Why does he keep saying it? Well, there must be something to it, then.’”

Auster says he is “throwing his hat in the ring” to become president of PEN America, a post held at the moment by Andrew Solomon. Auster has been vice-president and secretary of the organisation, which defends free expression and promotes international literary fellowship, but never felt he wanted the top job, until now. He has been inspired by “the sudden rebirth of political activism in the United States. We haven’t seen the likes of these demonstrations and this pushback since the Sixties. I think it’s real: it’s profound and it’s here to stay. This is not Occupy Wall Street, something that’s going to blow away in a year or two. I think these people – Siri and myself included – we’re committed for the long haul, and we’ll do anything we can to keep fighting it.”

His wife is the writer Siri Hustvedt; they have a daughter, Sophie, a singer. Auster is keen to stress Hustvedt’s own commitment to political resistance, recalling with energy a rally on the steps of the New York Public Library the week before Trump’s inauguration. It was a gathering of writers at which many people read poems; Hustvedt chose “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, the verse engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. “But she also gave a speech, which other people weren’t doing, and it was, I don’t know, about a page and a half of wonderfully tuned rhetoric. People were cheering after every sentence. So I knew I’d married this brilliant writer, but I didn’t know I’d married Rosa Luxemburg also!”

There is time for enjoyment as well as activism: which brings us back to the prestidigitations of David Blaine. Auster happened to be in Miami for his milestone birthday. The bookseller Mitchell Kaplan, a co-founder of the Miami Book Fair, threw a party for him that included performances by Blaine and Auster’s daughter. Leaning forward in his chair, he describes Blaine’s finale with the enthusiasm of a teenage Archie Ferguson. There was a huge jigsaw puzzle, made from a photograph of Auster, but it had a single piece missing. A volunteer from the audience then miraculously picked the one necessary piece from a box of hundreds of others – all of which, Auster assures me, were different. “I don’t know how he did this,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t know, I don’t know how he did it. It could have been sleight of hand – but we were all watching, and you saw nothing. So I don’t know, I don’t know how he did it.” Which isn’t a bad description of the novelist’s art, when you come to think of it.

“4 3 2 1” is published by Faber & Faber
“City of Glass” will open at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, on 20 April

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution