I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down: Summertime sadness

A programme full of comedians talking about their worst gigs allows Antonia Quirke briefly to believe that the summertime malaise is at an end.

I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down
Radio 4
 
August is a melancholy month, an antechamber you hang around in, drumming your fingers. Usually Radio 3 is the only station that comprehends this, programming huge wodges of Chopin through the night, letting the Nocturne in C minor go on until what feels like dawn; the notes, as someone once said, “not flowing, but falling – amid rests – like words of existential weight”.
 
Occasionally, the unspellable name of a Slavonic maestro is spoken by the announcer, whom you picture with shirt open at the throat and cigarette clinging to lower lip, followed by a moment of, if not quite silence, that perfectly gloomy, pronounced Radio 3 quiet. And then another bloody nocturne.
 
Usually Radio 4 programmes a tonne of repeats during August but so far this month it has been unseasonably keen, airing rambunctious interviews with the Clash and original plays about Joan Littlewood’s enlivening friendship with a wine baron. But one programme perfectly fitted the August sorrow – comedians talking about their worst gigs (19 August, 4pm).
 
At a coffee shop somewhere, Jack Dee and Jo Brand discussed their toughest moments on stage, a low canteeny clatter in the background contributing to that late-summer, lost feeling of other people being otherwise occupied. Dee said that the moment you start making jokes that begin with the word “anyway”, you are in deep trouble. Anyway stinks profoundly of fear. Brand described once inadvertently making what was interpreted as an outrageously racist joke – her embarrassment complete when she was complimented by the dreaded Roy “Chubby” Brown. She also made the point that no matter how celebrated or experienced, a comedian can still mess up horribly, making comedy the most democratic of forms.
 
“Didn’t Billy Connolly die recently?” she asked in awe, referring to his walking off stage after being faced with persistent heckling from crowds in Blackpool and Scarborough this year. (The inference was that if it can happen to Connolly, it can happen to anyone, so imposing is he as a character and so over-revered, even among comedians.)
 
The one stand-up mentioned who apparently has never died is Peter Kay. A friend tells me that many years ago he saw a thenunknown Kay at Edinburgh and that the comedian walked on to the tiny stage in a completely OTT cloud of dry ice, spluttering through the fog.
 
Even before he had said a word, the mood was hysterically cheerful, and everything from that point accelerated further into the insane good humour of a revival meeting. For some reason, we just have immediate faith that Kay will be funny without any kind of material whatsoever.
 
Back at the café, Jack Dee sounded resigned, thinking squirmingly of past disasters. He said he used to wear a motorbike helmet if he was working his way back through an unappreciative crowd at the Comedy Store, hoping that everyone might assume he was a pizza delivery guy. It was a nice confession and had people around his café table hooting. It sounded almost like September.
Billy Connolly. Photo: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage