I sat on a metal bench on the platform in Cambridge, waiting for my train to Stansted. With my huge rucksack strapped to my back, there was barely any room left for me, so I perched on the edge. I was still a bit sniffly, but I was determined not to miss any more gigs. I wanted to get back on the open mic road. Next on my schedule: Dublin.
But my resolve was still a bit shaken. I hadn’t impressed myself thus far. A journey of discovery is great if you discover that you’re really, really awesome and actually, look, you can shoot particle beams from your palms, but in my case I’d discovered that I’m prone to mood swings, needy, whining, and I brattishly take advantage of other people’s good natures to make my life easier.
What I was looking for was a sign; a good augury to lift my spirits and steel my resolve. With four minutes to go before my train arrived, I stood, took several purposeful strides towards the platform edge, and shat my pants.
This was unintentional.
Sure, I had engaged my sphincter muscles in the business of discharging what I believed to be a modest volume of methane, and was preparing myself for the resultant improvement in bowel comfort. But this was not what I had signed up for. Obviously, I was still a little ill.
Miring oneself is a strangely intimate experience, at once personal and very, very public. Your face goes through a variety of contortions as you rapidly pass through something akin to the five stages of grief: firstly there’s the period where you focus all your attention on the nerve endings surrounding your anus, ascertaining that it wasn’t just a particularly damp and fulsome fart, and bona fide fecal liquids and/or solids have been deposited in your undergarments. The hope of a false alarm falls away, and at this point the gravity of the situation stridently asserts itself – you are standing in a public place, and your trousers are sodden with arse gravy. Your expression becomes a study in false indifference as you struggle not to telegraph the bad news to your fellow human beings. It’s as if a voice has just whispered into your ear: ‘This is God. I’m real, but only you can hear Me. And you are the messiah. Congrats.’ You have been possessed of new and urgent knowledge, but nobody around you will understand. Your face ends up defaulting on a look of distant, twitching confusion.
The next stage is planning. This is real, this is happening, now what are you going to do about it? My train was not there. I looked up and down the platform. I could not see a sign for toilets. I knew they had to be somewhere, but I doubted I would be able to waddle all the way there undetected, carrying my massive backpack, ukulele, and my stash of contraband brown freight, affect emergency repairs, then get back in time to catch my train to the airport.
I would have to wait for my train, then. But what if it didn’t have a toilet? Plenty of short-distance two-carriage services don’t. Would I stand there for over half an hour, squashed amongst my fellow human beings, while the odour gradually insinuated its way into their affronted olfactory canals? Would I have to pantomime revulsion to avoid suspicion? Would we begin casting accusatory glares at one another, as if playing some twisted game of Bum Poker, where the only prize is not having a large group of strangers think that you’re incontinent?
A little girl with long curly brown hair walked past holding a balloon and trundling a mini pink wheelie suitcase behind her. She looked back over he shoulder at me, gazing up with bright, inquisitive eyes. I instinctively looked away, convinced that my very gaze was tainted. It just didn’t seem right to stare at someone’s sweet young daughter with my briefs drenched in bumwater.
I stared up at the big digital clock. 12:07 said the display. Three more minutes of waiting, three more minutes of guarding my dreadful secret. All around me, people chatted on cellphones, noshed crimped steaming pasties, fussed over their scarves, kissed goodbye or, beaming, hugged hello. A few metres down the platform, the little girl stood beside her mother, performing a elaborate, silent jig on the spot. They were getting on the same train as me.
Nobody knew. They were all so close, but none of them guessed the truth. Was this how it felt to be a suicide bomber? Intense loneliness in a shining slo-mo hyper reality, as you gaze upon the shifting mass of humanity with a kind of pity: poor unseeing fools – you’ve got no idea of the payload lurking beneath my clothes. And maybe you spot that one little girl, frolicking so innocently as she waits to board the same train as you, and you feel a pang of terrible regret, but it’s too late now – the genie is out of the bottle. Or bott-hole.
I stared and stared at the clock, my expression taking on a manic intensity as I tried to accelerate time through sheer force of will. Time retaliated by dragging its heels. Whereas the happiest, most exhilarating experiences of my life had shot by between heartbeats to be forgotten forever, this one was expanding like a pulled accordion while Old Father Time himself stooped, chisel in hand, to engrave every last sensory detail into the granite cliffs of my memory.
Eventually, a train appeared in the distance. As it pulled up to the platform, my chest tightened. It was packed. People stood, clutching purses and holdalls, jostling up against one another. Amongst the vexed, squashed passengers, I saw no evidence of a toilet. Oh bottoms.
Then the doors slid open, and everyone got off. I realised that this was where the train turned around, and soon, it was empty. When I got in, I shoved my rucksack into the overhead compartment, gave it a whack to make sure it was secure, then waddled towards the middle of the carriage, where – joy of joys! – I discovered a large, vacant toilet cubicle.
I’d spare you the details but I’ve sharted so I’ll finish. As the train began to move I kicked off my shoes and pulled off my trousers. I’d estimate there was only about a dessertspoonful of combined solids and liquids – well under the 100ml I could legally take on the plane as hand-luggage, but combined with my boxer shorts they constituted an offensive weapon that I could have held to a steward’s mouth in a bid to take the aircraft hostage. It was at this point that I wished I’d brought my rucksack into the cubicle with me, so I could have retrieved some unblemished pants, but as it was I just counted myself lucky to have found a toilet at all, and, tugging off my boxers, resolved to go commando.
The toilet was one of those disabled ones with the large semi-circular sliding door secured by a ‘Lock’ button. They always leave me feeling a bit vulnerable, as if at any moment the door might trundle aside to expose me in all my dropped-trou ignominy to a couple of gawp
ing coffin-dodgers. It was at that moment that I checked the two little buttons next to the sink, and realised that I was naked from the waist down, bent over clutching a pair of soiled undergarments, with the door unlocked. If anyone outside had pressed the ‘Open’ button, the first thing they would have been presented with was my pale and pimpled poo-dappled backside. I pressed the ‘Lock’ button.
I tell you all this not to repulse you, but to remind you of how lucky we all are. I said I’d work on being more positive and remembering to be grateful for small things, and I can say with some sincerity I am very grateful that, since I graduated from nappies up until that moment in Cambridge station, my bowels have operated a largely ‘on-demand’ service. Now, when I’m waiting for public transport and I’ve got a bit of a headache, I can think ‘at least my pants aren’t decorated with excrement’ and genuinely feel a rush of gratitude.
Going commando was largely anticlimactic, save for the brief frisson I experienced while getting frisked by airport security. Once I’d checked into my hotel in Dublin, I had a shower, replenished my underwear, and headed out to the gig. Marching into the city centre with the confidence that can only come from having a lemon-fresh ringpiece, I became rapidly lost.
After crossing the Liffey twice, wandering farther and farther, I gave up and hailed a taxi. The cabbie looked like an Irish Heston Blumenthal – I told him the venue and he swung the cab through 180 degrees, to take us in the opposite direction to the one I’d been staggering. We went back across the river, away from the centre until we came to a bar on a corner.
The cabbie lifted his trendy specs to squint at the sign. ‘Well there’s a letter missing there but I think that’s your pub,’ he said. I peeled him off a note from the sheaf of bizarre European play money they use as currency over there. ‘Good man,’ he said, as if my decision to pay him was particularly generous.
When I pushed open the door and went in, the bar appeared deserted. Man City were playing Hamburg on the big screen, which hung over a raised bit of plywood covered in red carpet that I assumed was the stage.
The barman entered from a door behind the bar. ‘Can I help you?’ He had a black biro tucked behind one ear, and looked to be in his thirties, with a shaved head, a mischievous twinkle is his big eyes, and the stubble shadow of a blacksmith’s tash.
‘Err… is there a comedy gig on here tonight?’
‘Yeah, but we’re going to have it downstairs because of the darts.’ He nodded towards a bare portion of wall behind me. ‘Are you one of the comedians?’
‘Yeah. Well… sort of.’
‘Are you from England?’
‘How long are you here for? A couple of weeks?’
I shrugged. ‘A bit less than that, I expect.’
‘Ah well, have you tried our Guinness?’
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘Well you should.’
‘Okay.’ I cleared my throat. For some reason I’d come over all shy. ‘One pint of Guinness please!’
The barman beamed his approval. I couldn’t help feeling I’m this was a schtick reserved for tourists, but I drink Guinness normally and would have ordered it anyway, so I was happy to play along.
‘We normally have it up here,’ he said as he poured my pint, nodding to the stage to the left of the bar, currently obscured by Hamburg taking a free kick. ‘It’s a difficult space.’
He wasn’t kidding. The whole of the room to the performer’s right was obscured by a huge supporting pillar about a metre wide, leaving a blind spot big enough to hold 20 or more bored, rambunctious drinkers. Looking right, the first thing a stand-up would be able to see would be the stained glass in the two doors to the pub toilets.
‘All the regulars sit in the other room,’ said the barman, pointing to his left, towards a partitioned section of bar where various grizzled grey haired men guzzled Guinness and chatted, ‘but they have to walk through here to get to the toilets, and as they go past, they heckle.’ He shook his head and chuckled to himself. ‘Oh, do they heckle.’ He finished pouring the first part of my Guinness and eased the tap closed. ‘People call this the hardest gig in Dublin. If you can do here, you can do anywhere.’
He fixed me with what seemed like a fiendish grin. ‘So you know it’s a competition tonight? Lots of local lads down, bringing their mates to laugh and vote for them. So it’ll be tough for ya.’
‘Um, yeah, I’d heard that. I’m not taking part though.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Oh right. Above all that, are ya?’
‘No, no! I just… to be honest with you, I’m not even a comedian.’ I took a breath. ‘I’m a poet.’
His face fell. ‘Oh Christ. Well… good luck to ya.’ He finished my Guinness off and handed it to me. ‘There ya go. A nice creamy pint for ya.’ As I reached for it, he added: ‘Leave it to settle.’
I felt like an oik who’d just attempted to piss in the fingerbowl. I retracted my hand and waited.
A lot more happened, I met some cool people, but this blog isn’t a place for me to spell out all the juicy details. As some of you know, I’ve been talking notes, getting audio and video recordings of gigs, chatting to people, taking (bad) pictures, and, you know, remembering stuff with my magical head, and, once I’m done, I’m going to find the best way of presenting it all so that other people can find out about it too, meet some of the fascinating characters that I did, cringe as I cringed, hear some performers’ stories, and work out what it all means.
Like I said before I set off, for now this blog is a bit ‘what I did on my holidays’, because I’m busy doing rather than archiving. Also, I’m meeting new people every day, and I’ll feel like a bit of a git if they wake up the next morning to find themselves as characters in a poorly thought-out first draft, no matter how nice I am about them. I want some distance so I can do it all justice, and also, so I can be honest. So yeah. Just to underline – this isn’t it. It’s just notes on the notes.
In any case, the evening went on very late, and ended with a very pissed debate round the bar about the essence of stand-up, and the philosophy of comedy, and what it means to be a jobbing comic. Eric Shantz is a lanky baseball cap wearing stand-up from Pittsburg who is a regular at the night, and who we’d watched do about 20-25 minutes of material to a tired, drunk, reluctant room. I’d genuinely admired his pugilist’s spirit – even though there was never going to be some cigar-chomping Mr Big sitting in a corner waiting to talent spot him, he went in and kept fighting for his whole set, showing craft and determination and balls. Eventually he’d started getting heckled by his own girlfriend, who was wasted, but he ploughed on and saw the gig out.
That, to me, was the epitome of professionalism, but a long time and many pints later, we’d got snarled up in a convoluted drunken debate about who was and wasn’t funny, and what audiences would and wouldn’t accept. ‘Shantz’ – as he was known on stage – seemed to take a more absolutist stance, arguing that ‘funny is funny’ and that real masters of the craft could take their routine anywhere and kill. I was coming back with what I suppose was more of a contextualist position, saying that I thought expectation sets have a massive influence on an audience’s reaction, priming them for a certain style of humour depending on their prior knowledge of the act or the venue. At least, I think those were the two ideologies we were trying to advance, but I was so wasted we might have just been bellowing random vowel sounds.
Basically, we were both advancing the truths it was more palatable for us to believe. I’d taken some lickings on the stand-up circuit with poems that usually did well at cabaret and poetry gigs, and so it was pleasant to imagine that this was the fault of the neanderthal audience and not representative of some deficit in my range and performance choices. Shantz, on the other hand, had been gigging for 11 years, working the LA circuit till it squeaked, and so I imagine the idea that, no matter what you did, you might still be at the mercy of a range of external factors sounded defeatist, even depressing.
‘No, you’re not listening to me,’ said Shantz.
‘I’m just trying to-‘
‘Goddammit!’ He slammed down his beer so he could gesture with both hands. ‘Woody Allen.’ He delivered the four syllables like a general ordering his troops to prepare the Doom Machine. ‘Woody fucking Allen. Are you trying to tell me that Woody Allen couldn’t-‘
‘What I was saying was that Woody Allen-‘
‘See? See?’ He got up from his stool in exasperation, slapped his brow. ‘You’re not even fucking listening to me!’
Geo, the other guy running the night, and Steve, as I’d discovered the barman was called, were staring at us. Shantz took off his cap and ran a hand through his short, dark hair. I sensed a tension had built up in the room. I needed some way of puncturing it.
‘I shat myself this morning,’ I said.
Geo, Steve and Shantz exchanged glances.
Steve gave me a pitying smile, as if he’d guessed the truth right from the moment I’d walked in the door. ‘Right, I think that’s time to drink up now gents, please.’