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: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.