Latitude, Leonard and the mob mind

"Get out of my country!" shouts a young man. A tidal swell of assent and applause fills the comedy t

In his 1929 essay "Pornography and Obscenity", D H Lawrence famously claimed that we all have two selves - "the mob self and the individual self". Having found myself in a number of different crowds this past week, I've often found at least one of these selves dancing nonchalantly in the dark with all kinds of chilly ideas.

This joke isn't funny

At the Latitude festival last week, where I did a reading in the books tent, the crowd is a constantly mutating mix of all ages. Nu-rave synths slice through woody groves at the same time as the RSC rip up a theatre audience with pantomime zombies by the lake. At night, Sigur Ros puff out stars into the crowd. After midnight, a 45-year-old man shouts in the poetry tent: "I've only got 44 years to live!"

I have a couple of "must-see" acts, including the thrilling and bizarre Dutch comedian Hans Teeuwen, who I saw at the Edinburgh festival last year in a tiny basement under a pub. The comedy tent is packed with what feels like a thousand people. We laugh happily at the gentle truisms of Stewart Lee, and I feel a personal excitement as we wait for Hans. Just wait till they see him, I think.

But from the moment he begins, something is askew. I realise that I am one of only a handful of people laughing. Then Hans begins a description of "heterosexual sex", including a deliberately inappropriate mime attempting to worship the female form. The crowd bristle, grow angry and begin to bay for blood. Do they believe he has been disrespectful toward women? It seems odd, as he is not even flirting with the free and dirty misogyny that is a regular element of the comedy circuit. If anything, he is sending up the "too much information" aspect of Dutch liberal attitudes to sex.

"Fuck off!" yell two men behind me. There is a roar of mob approval. "Get out of my country!" shouts a young man. A tidal swell of assent and applause fills the tent. Hans makes fun of posh English accents in an attempt to keep going but he is doomed - the audience begins to chant "Fuck off!" in unison to force him off the stage. I feel nauseous, unnerved by how quickly and completely the crowd has turned. This does not feel like it's about his act, now. Something else is going on. I cheer loudly and clap in support for Hans when he bows and leaves the stage, but everyone is cheering and chanting anyway, at his exit. When the compère returns, he says: "For those of you who seem to want one-liners, here's a 'joke-joke'." He then proceeds to tell an old-fashioned sexist joke about a person who has a stained penis because he's been "fucking allsorts" and gets a hearty laugh.

"That's one of my dad's jokes," shouts the compère, visibly angry. "If you're only going to laugh at stupid jokes, maybe you could wait for one I've written myself."

For the love of Leonard

In the same week, I am also lucky enough to see my favourite lyricist perform live, for the first time in my life. Leonard Cohen at the O2 is a mob experience of an entirely different nature. Even though Lenny sings to 20,000 people about love and death, the arena is doused in shadow and intimacy - it could be a tiny bar in Paris, New York or even Buenos Aires back in the Sixties. He jokes, and we all murmur our smiles out together. Seventy three years old now, and he sings about the end in song after song - but even death feels like a warm embrace in Cohen's hands. We believe in his particular tightrope between the sacred and profane, and it is something to be there in that moment.

The writing life

Back to the solitary aspect of my job, and the shed that I rent near my house. I'm writing bits of journalism and responding to interviews around Aids Sutra, a forthcoming book about HIV and Aids to which I've contributed a story. My mind is on Cohen, and the perfect series of lines: "Oh take this longing from my tongue/whatever useless things these hands have done/Let me see your beauty broken down/like you would do for one you love." A bunch of simple words - put together like beads in a painfully elegant necklace. One day, eh.

Nikita Lalwani is the author of "Gifted" (Penguin) and winner of the £10,000 2008 Desmond Elliott Prize, which she donated to Liberty

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class