I didn’t do anything even vaguely funny for Comic Relief

We all try to resist the cliché that, as a nation, we're obsessed with failure but it's hard to miss the glee in the papers when a story comes up like this: a woman in Southwark has failed her driving theory test for the 90th time. After a total outlay of almost £3,000, she has yet again been defeated by the kind of troubling questions aspiring drivers face: "You are driving on the motorway when a giraffe appears. Do you a) take steps to avoid it -- ie, brake; or b) plough straight into it?"

And this is just the theory component of the test, only the second most taxing aspect after the bit where you actually have to drive the car. There's a man in the Midlands, incidentally, who's had 36 goes at that. He and the instructor must by now be seeing each other socially, perhaps arranging to take in a movie or have dinner after the next failed test. When he finally passes, both of them will probably experience a strange feeling of emptiness, like those players I wrote about during Wimbledon who played out the longest ever match.

The reason we know this is, according to the papers, "a freedom of information request". In other words, someone thought: I'd love to know who the worst drivers around are -- let's invoke the law to get hold of that data.

This is a very British impulse. Should we be a little ashamed of our prurience on the subject of failure? Perhaps not, because the tone of the reports has been affectionate -- even celebratory -- rather than mocking. We love failure not because of some cruel impulse towards our fellow man or woman but because it's one of the few things that unite us all. Virtually everyone knows what it's like to devote huge amounts of time and money to something that continues to elude us.

Most of us are relieved and surprised when we realise that other people are as incompetent as we are -- for example, arriving at the lost property office to reclaim a wallet, only to find that the office, too, has misplaced it. Failure brings us together in ways success never could. So, long may these people continue not being allowed to drive. Not least because I haven't got a licence myself yet and they're making me look good.

Total mayhem

I'm in Australia at the moment but, as I write, half of my homeland will be gearing up to raise money for Comic Relief. "Do something funny for money" is the slogan this year, as well as being a pretty good approximation of my career brief. By the time you read this, some one will have "won" an eBay auction to have me follow them on Twitter and write a stand-up routine in their honour, courtesy of an initiative called Twit Relief. The top bid for this dubious privilege is, at the time of writing, £310.

Some people have been getting pretty indignant about this idea. Are comedians and actors really so arrogant as to sell, in essence, the chance to have a fleeting friendship with them? Does the general public deserve to be patronised with the idea that -- if it's very lucky -- it might get a tweet from someone who's been in The Thick of It?

This sort of cynicism seems misplaced to me because although it may well be ludicrous to part with hundreds of pounds so that Leona Lewis (or her representatives) will follow you on Twitter, the end more than justifies the means. That end is raising money for the many deserving causes Comic Relief props up and it's important enough to vindicate almost any approach: emotional blackmail, banal sponsored events, even prime-time shows where people dress up as Lady Gaga. Even if you decide to sponsor yourself £20 to watch Channel 4 all Friday night and throw that into the pot, it's been worth it. Twit Relief is going to yield a lot of money for charity and that's really all that matters.

But the complaints about Twit Relief are a useful reminder that people can get charity fatigue. To judge from my Facebook messages alone, there are so many people doing "something funny for money" for Comic Relief that there's almost no one left to perform the unfunny but necessary task of donating.

I imagine the Red Nose Day Britain I've left behind as a place of total mayhem where virtually nothing is accomplished, because everyone is busy having custard pies shoved in their faces or wearing an oversized pair of trousers or lying in a bath of baked beans.

So I'm going to make my contribution by sitting here on the other side of the world, donating online and not doing a single thing that's at all humorous. Or it could be that I'm scared of failing, I suppose.

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.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.