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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge