The Loneliness of the Long Distance Punner

Paris, Milan, Keswick and Hull - the glamour of being a comedian on tour

I am just about to embark on an international stand-up tour which will keep me busy until June 11th. It is a slightly surreal itinerary, which sees me playing Hull one day, then Paris the next, then Milan, then Keswick. It’s as if someone wants to give me the illusion of having a glamorous life, but then bring me crashing down to earth. Not wishing to be rude to the people of Keswick. But all you have is a Pencil Museum, which is hardly a match for La Scala Opera House or the Eiffel Tower is it? And I really, really like pencils. A lot.

My show is called ménage à un and is loosely themed around the subjects of loneliness, only-ness and Onanism. But I felt it was quite an apt title in any case, as stand-up is surely the most solitary and masturbatory of art forms. Each night I stand isolated in a spot light, vigorously massaging my organ (in this case my brain), then shooting my brackish ideas over the audience’s delighted and sometimes less delighted faces (not everyone enjoys their face dripping with unsavoury ideas).

And just like such a one sided sex act, it can seem like such a good idea at the time – while it’s actually happening you’re both up for it - but once it is over, you catch each other’s eye as if to say, “What the Hell was that about? What were we thinking? Why did we both willingly and enthusiastically put ourselves through that ordeal?” And then you slink off separately into the night, feeling nothing but shame and confusion, vowing you will never see each other again, but secretly hoping you will accidentally meet in another dark room and repeat the whole sordid scenario. Only then can a comedian feel he has really earned his money.

I think people might imagine that a stand up on tour must have the most wonderful and gregarious of lives: working for an hour a day, then getting pissed, taking the finest drugs and sleeping with a string of nubile groupies. But in reality this kind of thing only happens about 97% of the time. And it does not make up for that yawning 3% chasm in which we are a secluded breed of unloved outcasts.

If a gig goes badly, there is the mortifying walk of shame, through the throng of disappointed punters, before you are swallowed by the night and make your way anonymously back to your hotel where you sit alone in your room attempting to pleasure yourself to the poor quality soft pornography, laid on for sexually unambitious businessmen.

If the gig goes brilliantly, it is even worse. You have wowed a room of people, you are literally a god to them. But when you return to their earthly realm, real life seems monochrome by comparison. The company of such tedious mortals is not something that you crave. So you head to your hotel alone again, contemplating the fact that the fleeting adoration of a room of drunken idiots is probably no substitute for the true love of a devoted wife or the unconditional devotion of a tiny child. Then you drink yourself into oblivion before inevitably tuning into Lusty Asians VIII and allow the night to come full circle.

Of course, I am jesting. It is my job. You must never take anything I say seriously. Though you must always suspect that in everything I say there is some grain of truth. Imagine what fun it must be being my girlfriend. No wonder I am alone.

But in reality I am not as downhearted as I might seem. I love this ridiculous and wonderful (I almost baulk at calling it this) job.

It is the autonomy of stand up that makes it such a brilliant, unique and exciting medium for the communication of ideas. There is no-one telling you what you must do, no producer telling you what you can or can’t say, no executive suggesting you try to appeal to a certain demographic, no actors to misinterpret what you had to say. It is just you on your own, doing the stuff that you think is funny. It is possibly the last pure art form.

In ménage à un, I mourn the fact that I have lived for nearly 40 years and yet never taken part in a threesome. I thought that by drawing attention to this in the show I might persuade a couple of young ladies in the audience to take pity on me and make my fantasies come true. But after over fifty performances I have lowered my expectations. For a while I just hoped my desperation might lead to a twosome, but if it ever has done then I was not involved. So recently I have taken to asking any single men in the crowd if they are prepared to come back to my hotel room and pleasure themselves next to me, so that at least I won't be alone.

Who says comedy is the new rock and roll?

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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