Sunday was the 11th Walthamstow Wassail: online this year, like so many other events and traditions that break up the year and help give life some narrative and meaning.
Conspiracy theorists view Covid as an agent of state control, and vaccines as containing microchips designed by billionaires to make the masses more pliant.
These people are idiots, but one unfortunate side-effect of the pandemic has been to miss out on many of those communal, strange, and anarchic coming together of peoples. The wassail is just wandering along some streets, insulting local cheese makers and singing to apple trees, bees, friends, neighbours, and bemused locals. But it’s also a tiny act of rebellion and eccentricity in our increasingly homogenised city.
We sang the Apple Tree Wassail and a Georgian new year chant, but all the friends I had met in previous years, clutching mulled cider in front of a bonfire in a stranger’s back garden, or in a strange boudoir upstairs of the local pub, were all trapped in little rectangles on my screen. Due to internet lag, they, like me, were singing on mute; we were together, but oh so apart.
On the other hand, the online nature of the event meant we had participants from as far away as Canada, a mythical country over the seas. And it meant that Anna, who introduced me to this lovely community, was able to follow along with her daughter from her new home of Glasgow.
Credit to Lucy, the mistressmind behind the Wassail, and the other organisers for keeping the tradition going this year, and for marshalling online events so efficiently.
I am lucky enough to be living in a house with an apple tree in its garden this year, so I was able to stick some toast in its branches and some apple juice in its roots.
Waes Hael! See you all in a year’s time for another celebration of the cyclical nature of existence.
After a few days of not leaving the house, I went to the Sainsbury’s on the other side of town. A big box by the dual carriageway , the trip to this mahoosive shop felt a bit like a holiday, or at least a day trip. Such are the narrowing of one’s expectations during a pandemic.
Usually I cycle, but I decided to walk this time. It’s not like I was in a hurry to get back.
I tried to keep to back streets, and crossed the road whenever I saw a pedestrian coming the other way. I’m not quite sure if this is a sensible precaution or Covid paranoia, but either way it kept the excitement levels up, as I played human frogger between the drivers, many of whose cars were seemingly built without indicators.
It wasn’t a pleasant walk. Much like pretty much every British town, Herne Bay is not designed for pedestrians.
One mysterious side-effect of my crash last summer is how it’s made me a much more anxious urban walker. The noise of revving engines, speeding, idling, phone use at the wheel: all these behaviours stress me out a lot more than they did before. Which makes sense, except: the crash occurred while I was on a bike. And on a bike, I feel as confident as before. Why is that not the case when I’m on two feet?
I think the answer is the illusion of control. I am what the kids like to call a “vehicular cyclist” . Young  and fit , I can keep up with traffic, take the lane when necessary, and “keep my wits about me” in the manner Boris Johnson, the stupid person’s idea of a clever person, said was needed to cycle safely in London .
This doesn’t stop people from left hooking me, or driving into the back of me, or speeding and losing control of their Audis. But it does at least make me feel less passive, and therefore – logically or otherwise – more in control.
When I’m walking, I feel quite the opposite. Whether it’s inching into the road to get around vans parked on the pavement, or trying to navigate a busy roundabout with zero pedestrian crossings, post-crash I have never felt more vulnerable.
With this, I’ve probably been given an early insight in what it’s like to be an older pedestrian. When the time provided to cross at the lights is never long enough; when your wheelchair or mobility scooter is constantly forced into the road due to drivers parking on the pavement. And when the infrastructure, impatient and angry drivers, and our car-centric culture all combine to make you feel less and less inclined to step outside your door.
Some members of my family think of me as a “cyclist”, and like to hold me responsible for the naughty, annoying, and in some cases even illegal actions of other cyclists. But you can’t write to the chief cyclist and ask them to tell us all to wind our necks in. I am not responsible for anyone apart from myself, just as a car driver is not responsible for any other car driver.
But “cyclist” *has* been a big part of my identity over the years. And I refuse to be bullied off the road by irresponsible drivers. But I am also a pedestrian; a lover of long train journeys to the coast, and of sitting on the top deck of a bus listening to a podcast or quietly writing down overheard conversations to anonymise and stick in my writing. Heck, I’ll even ride a hovercraft if I’m allowed.
The bike is just one of many modes of transport I choose to employ. And once we finally emerge, blinking, from this terrible pandemic, we need to do everything we can to make walking, cycling, scooting, hover boarding, and even pogo-sticking the obvious, pleasant, and most direct options for local journeys.
And eventually, maybe, the fear will recede and our cities, towns and communities can re-emerge and recover from the virus of motor vehicles.
 Whereas a duel carriageway is where you fight dandy highwaymen.
 Johnson later U-turned, as he is wont to do, and did eventually commission some genuinely segregated cycle lanes, to his eternal and only credit. But it took a heck of a lot of protest and campaigning to achieve even those meagre concessions. There’s so much more that needs to be done.
“I didn’t know, during this happy summer of 1914, what life had in store for me. I didn’t know that this little circus clown was to be caught up in great events he couldn’t understand”.
Nicolai Poliakoff, better known as Coco the Clown, lived a preposterously eventful life.
Born in Dvinsk, a small town in what is now Latvia, young Nicolai remembers his father going off to fight the Japanese in the 1905-6 war, singing and tumbling for cakes in an officer’s club as a 5 1/2 year old, and was determined to be an artiste from the moment he could think.
A childhood of repeatedly running away led to stints with organ grinders and helping out at local cafes and theatres. But the big top was calling to him.
Eventually, after travelling 300 miles from home and spending a night in a shed, hugging a piece of sack and pretending it was his mother, Nicolai begged and charmed his way in to a performance at a circus in Vitebsk. And there, he saw the great Lazerenko.
“Suddenly he appeared on top of the bandstand. With a shout he dived headlong down into the ring. He was followed by a seemingly endless stream of pots and pans, which made an ear-splitting clatter as they crashed into the ring.
“Lazerenko sat amongst these with such a pained impression on his comical face, that the circus rocked with laughter. But I didn’t laugh. I was wondering how he managed to fall so far without hurting himself.”
From that moment on, he knew he must be a clown.
As you might expect for a poor kid growing up in Tsarist Russia, the journey wasn’t going to be easy. There are to be beatings by notorious Moscow police chiefs, and occasional imprisonments and exiles to Siberia.
You could say Coco had a splendid knack for turning up at the wrong place at the wrong time, but then again you could say that for anyone Russia was the wrong place and 1914 very much the wrong time. It was a miracle he survived the next few years; millions didn’t.
His experience of the war was evidently traumatic; he deals with his time at the front in a few short paragraphs.
“I was barely fifteen, and at that age a medal seemed to me to be worth everything. But within six months I was crouching at the bottom of a trench, crying, while all around me the very earth was dissolving into smoke and fire. This was a war I did not know. The game had changed”.
Poliakoff survived by getting injured enough to be admitted to military hospital. From there he imagined the German armies coming closer and closer, worrying for the future of his beloved Russia.
Eventually, his hospital in Petrograd ran out of food. He tried to make his way to the station to make his way back to his parents in Riga. Instead – classic Coco – he accidentally got swept up into the Revolution. Surrounded by Cossacks, long-haired students, and striking workers, he witnessed the blood, pandemonium, and howling, impassioned mob. He decided this was “no kind of circus for me”.
“I pressed on to the station. A circus clown in a revolution! There is something comic to the idea. But just then I didn’t feel very comic.”
Coco spent the next few years in the White Army, avoiding the red firing squad due to a friendly railwayman who vouched for him as more clown than counter-revolutionary soldier. His older brother – who had encouraged him to sign up – was not so lucky, and was executed. Suffice to say, this clown was no fan of the Revolution.
The autobiography understandably loses its intensity after the tumultuous early events and chapters, but Coco still finds time to injure himself extremely badly on numerous occasions, most memorably when the samovar he was balancing above him breaks, covering him in boiling water. The children laugh; the show must go on. Afterwards, he removes his costume, and the skin off his back with it. He then makes one of his many trips to hospital.
But Coco gets married, continues to work his way up to greater and ever less regional fame, and eventually makes his way to Weimar-era Germany, where he is shocked that labour laws mean he can’t perform with his “nearly” nine year old daughter.
From here, he makes it to Britain, where he is amazed by the modernity and efficiency of the great circus organisations. As he repeats more than once, his travelling fair even had its own fire engine.
With starvation, imprisonment and destitution all fading to unlikelihoods rather than distinct possibilities, Poliakoff relaxes and his prose becomes less hurried, more discursive. He even manages some fairly purple passages about his adopted homeland:
“Your England, which I hope is now my England too, can be so beautiful in all her moods. And on the tenting trail there are always plenty of adventures, and comedy too.
“I remember one unplanned comedy – It concerned Rolly the midget clown and myself…”
If you had “accidental whistle swallowing incident” in mind, please give yourself a pat on the back.
On page 190, we learn that actually he’s not a clown. Technically he is an auguste. You can forgive him for not mentioning this earlier, as so much other stuff was going on.
“In spite of all their queer devices, their electric eyes, false ears, exploding hats, enormous safety pins and watches, boomerang hats, and strange wigs, augustes still keep one important part of their original character. They are still the butts and foils. They are always wrong. Everything they do is wrong.
“If the white clown is doing some conjuring trick the auguste joins in and spoils them. If there is anything to trip over, the auguste trips. He must be a skilled tumbler, and he must not mind cold water, for he will have plenty of falls, and many buckets will be tipped over him.
“Often, too, he must be a musician – enough of a musician to play the wrong notes at the right moments.”
Like the Great Gonzo.
By his tenth summer tenting-tour with the Bertram Mills circus, alongside performing horses and tigers, elephants and lions, acrobats and daredevils, strong men and escapologists, alongside Australian, French, Indian, Polish, Czechoslovak, Greek, Italian, German performers, to name a few, Coco was as content as a clown – or auguste – could be.Internationally famous, and keen to play tribute to the skill and professionalism of his fellow artistes, he seems almost apologetic to mention that another world war breaks out a month later, and Poliakoff hurries off to join yet another army.
The first edition, published in 1941, ends there, with a cheery “on with the show” and the expressed hope that Coco the Clown will return to the ring one day, “if Nicolai survives his third war.”
And, in a hastily added epilogue, we find out that he does. Even out of his grease paint, Nicolai is too famous. He spends the war putting on shows for his fellow Tommys, and our clown author rattles through 1939-45 via a series of camps and variety revues.
It is a strange, tacked on coda. We learn of Coco’s post-war road safety campaigning, which while charming and can be viewed in this excellent Pathe newsreel, is something of an underwhelming finale after all the fumbles and tumbles and major historical events.
But through chaos and routine, from Riga to the fairground outside Luton, Coco is phlegmatic to the end. “Perhaps a Clown learns to be something of a philosopher”, Nicolai ponders. Because Nicolai is not Coco, and Coco is not Nicolai. But Coco was always in there, waiting to jump out, and to fall, fall, and fall again, somehow always managing to land on his feet.
As he had been practicing to do, his entire life.
– Poliakoff’s son, Michael, also dedicated his life to clowning. He performed in America – as Coco – for Billy Smart’s circus, and revamped Ronald McDonald for the burger themed restaurant chain in 1966. The Ronald we know today was his invention, in terms of make up and costume.
– Harry Hill’s TV show featured a Coco the clown of the far future, with a broad Russian accent, enormous shoes and constant run-ins with the Clown Union.
I never used to send Christmas cards. They seemed one of those weird doomed middle class traditions, where you go to quite a lot of effort to say nothing at all.
Then I realised this was, like a lot of my pretentions, self-defeating nonsense. I sent a bunch this year, though still not as many as I’d like. I always try to make the inside of them better than the standard “To X, Merry Xmas, Love from X and the children / pets”.
But this year I drew the cards too, because shops are scary this year and best avoided. More scary than usual, I mean.
Hovercrafts exist in the British postwar imagination alongside Concorde and the Post Office Tower as avatars of the rapidly arriving future.
These ludicrous metal beasts, dreamed up by some archetypal crackpot inventor, brought Europe closer, but were also a symbol of British exceptionalism. Sure, the French have some nice wines, but do they have planes that can take off vertically or enormous air cushion based cross channel vehicles? Of course they don’t .
Armed with that other postwar symbol of modernity and freedom – the car – my household took a trip down to the bay to walk among the concrete ruins.
At the time of writing, the border with France was closed, due to a scary new Covid variant. One couldn’t escape Brexit island even by ferry. Our route took us past Manston airport, which was packed with many hundreds of lorries unable to make the journey from Dover.
After parking up, we made our way down past what would once have been the foot passenger entrance, which came down past the Viking ship – a gift from the Danish government – via a bridge over the now abandoned service road.
Looking out across what would have been the car park from my overgrown footbridge, you get a good sense of the scale of the operation. Pegwell Bay was once some Gerry Anderson set made real; you can almost hear the triumphal Thunderbirds music as you look across the weeds, moss and crumbling concrete.
We walked away from Ramsgate, towards the first of the two hovercraft “landing” strips. You can still see the approach markings, and enjoy the smooth concrete emerging from the calm waters, or even pretend to be an arriving hovercraft yourself if you’re in the mood for it.
What’s sad is the terminal building was relatively intact until the nineties. It would have been great for it to be salvaged, and perhaps reopened as a combined birdwatching and community centre, with cafe and hovercraft museum. This could have been connected up with Ramsgate town centre via a monorail operating along the old service road.
Until then, this remains a wonderful spot for watching the birds and wandering the remnants of Britain’s postwar optimism. There’s even a roundabout that has been reclaimed by nature, which struck me as an oddly reassuring monument to a better future.
It also reminded me of Chernobyl.
 The hovercrafts were run by a Swedish company.
There’s a girl I know who rolls her eyes at the Gok Wan Acolytes / Underneath her bed there lies a collection of ammonites
Fix it so she dreams of me, Half Man Half Biscuit
A Sunday morning spent seeking fossils at low tide. A quick cycle along the front, past dogs and families and passing rain clouds. An investigation into mud and shell and sand. And a brief intrusion by what on first glance appeared to be an escaped piglet.
I lack the patience for scrabbling in the muck. I’m with Eddie Izzard on this one: speed archaeology is the only archaeology for me, and I put palaeontology in the same category.
But while I was clambering on rocks and staring out to sea, Ruth persevered, and was rewarded with a fossilised shark’s tooth.
This belonged to a sand tiger shark, who would have been keeping it real chomping on abundant marine life 54-56 million years ago, when southern England was up near where Spain is today. The Kent of the time lay beneath a warm, shallow sea, and no fish and chip shops were open and would continue to not be open for a long, long time.
The best spot for finding fossils is at low tide on the beach just below Beltinge, a suburb to the east of Herne Bay on the way to Reculver.
Wednesday was our sketch collective’s Christmas Party and awards show, which we put together to celebrate the funny stuff we somehow managed to get out over the course of what I am contractually obliged to describe as a Challenging Year.
The party was on Zoom, and people who we hadn’t seen at any online script meetings for months turned up, such is the human lust for glory. Some dressed in their finest top hats and ball gowns; others did not.
Hosting the awards were Mick Fleetwood and Sam Fox, and I found myself playing the role of Fox. Paul was the Dido to my Eminem, as we bickered, took copious quantities of cocaine , and generally turned the entire ceremony into a complete laughing stock. Which, of course, was the intention.
Favourite Podcast Sketch
Landslide victor in the podcast category was Grondelkemmer. Ben gave a very moving speech in which he attempted not to say Grondelkemmer a specific number of times, lest this cause Grondelkemmer to appear and steal his eyes.
Grondelkemmer can be heard in the Next Level Sketch podcast episode ‘Grondelkemmer’
Favourite Stage Sketch
We managed three live shows in 2020, two before the pandemic and then one in October, which went ahead thanks to the excellent efforts of Hoopla and The Miller to make the venue Covid secure. The London Dungeon sketch got the biggest laugh of the night, helped in no small part by Greg Davies’ tuning forgetting his lines into a masterpiece of sustained nonsensical tension on a par with Sideshow Bob’s incident with the rakes.
The pivot from stage to audio brought on by some global pandemic or other allowed our more musically talented members the opportunity to play around with jingles, songs for imaginary  characters, and theme tunes for 1950s-style sitcoms about Richard Branson and Elon Musk living in a moon penal colony due to unspecified crimes against humanity.
Worthy winner was the infuriatingly catchy Handyman theme tune, which was so good our producer included it in the episode twice.
‘The Handyman’ can be heard in the Next Level Sketch podcast episode “The Handyman Chronicles”
Best use of Puns
My co-host, Mick Fleetwood, tried to catch me out by asking me to define puns while introducing this category, but Sam Fox is nothing if not professional and managed to squeeze out an accurate if long-winded explanation.
Puns are like slower balls in cricket: they are made of leather and cork, and need to be used sparingly to maintain the element of surprise. John Dredge is the master, James Turner is brilliant at wringing out every last bit of funny from a tortuously wordy premise, and Euan just added the prefix “horse” to everyday objects to remind people that his characters are horses, and still somehow almost won this category.
Sadly Joe could not make it to the awards, so Roderick gave an acceptance speech in the style of Joe. It’s what he would have wanted.
Tory poverty understander Darcy Trustfund III. Vivien Pubic-Jones, the first nudist in space. Writing sketches provides the joy of coming up with stupid characters, and then giving them even stupider names. The good people of next level decided that broadcast journalist Chad Genocide-Smith was the most winningly stupid of them all.
You can hear Chad Genocide-Smith in Episode 3 of the Next Level Sketch podcast
We interspersed our podcast episodes with adverts for everything from Jurassic Park and Ride, Nottingham City Council’s second most successful transport scheme, to frothy coffee, the most sheep related coffee ever to make it out of Wales. Sarit’s spookingly good ad came from our Halloween special, and she gave a tearful acceptance speech hammer than David Cameron’s penis.
‘Creepy crawly cover care’ can be heard in the Next Level Sketch Halloween special, ‘Steve the Sexy Cat’.
Favourite Delivery on Stage
Another hard fought category, particularly as one sketch did in fact feature a delivery on stage. Vic has been one of our most consistently funny performers, and I’m delighted she won this award in a very strong field.
The character of Charles, with his innocent if relentless appreciation for boys of a particular girth, has existed in Paul’s head for many years. He did a delightful job in decanting him into the podcast, where he was last spotted, covered in shards of broken glass, in our Christmas episode.
I am so pleased that there were some Russians in the room for this incredible performance. Cody’s monologue in character as the doomed first
You will need to travel back in time to February to see Cody’s Laika Sketch, as unfortunately we do not have it up on YouTube
Outstanding Innovation in the field of Stage Direction
I enjoyed every single entry on this prestigious shortlist, but Roderick has a special talent in constructing borderline impossible FX cues. The winning entry was a masterpiece of economy: “A twenty foot magpie flies down and eats them”.
Zoe is one of our funniest writers and contributors, with a keen ear for dialogue and sharp awareness for the hypocrisies and absurdities of our age. Our Harvest brilliantly skewers the smugness of a very particular type of middle class holier-than-thou-iana. It’s also really gross!
‘Our Harvest’ was too disgusting  to be committed to film.
Paul won favourite impression despite his impression being a) inaccurate, as Musk doesn’t have a South African accent, and b) far nicer than the actual Elon Musk. Mick Fleetwood had the good grace to give his acceptance speech in the style of Paul Creasy’s intentionally inaccurate Elon Musk.
These require either no further explanation or lots of further explanation, depending on how deep into the NLS Lore Hole you find yourself. All I can remember is Dan promised to write sketches with no characters whatsoever next year, and Greg was busy writing a song during the meeting.
The awards concluded with a five minute silence for all the people who left our WhatsApp group this year, and the messages that pushed them over the edge.
 Metaphorically speaking
 I suppose all characters are imaginary.
 I’m not quite sure why this Sketch was not captured on film
Today I took a break from seeking jobs and gazing into the fire to walk along the coast to Whitstable and back. The path was busy with dog walkers and cyclists, so I stuck to the shore line and stared at the egrets and oystercatchers.
Whitstable itself isn’t designed for cars, but is inundated with them. Quite how the local council haven’t pedestrianised Harbour Street in a global pandemic I’ll never know, but as things stand, locals hobble along narrow pavements, finding it impossible to socially distance because of the constant stream of motor vehicles.
I didn’t stay long, but had time for a lovely brunch on the beach, and a visit to the Oxford Bookshop – my first time in a non-food shop for quite some time.
I was the only customer among its rambling shelves, and I ended up with a lovely haul of two science fiction books (William Gibson and China Mieville); a pleasingly dated guide to the North Downs Way and the Pilgrims Way; and a modern history of Japan, written in the sixties by a historian who looks the most historian-y historian ever to historise. I look forward to reading them all.
Yesterday some new super-powerful front lights arrived, to replace the ones lost in the midst of one of my many bouts of forgetfulness. I’m now back to my preferred set up of two back lights – one flashing, one constant – and two front lights.
The beefier of the two front ones is only required for dark country lanes. To test it, I cycled down to Reculver at 11pm last night, through the drizzle and past the sea fishermen packing up their rods for the night.
I switched it on shortly after the church of St Mary the Virgin, and Reculver lane’s secrets were revealed to me. My handlebars made grotesque shadows on the passing hedgerows, like antlered hell beasts moving unnaturally along the margins of my world.
I sped downhill, taking the middle of the road as cyclists are wont to do, my new powerful beam pointed down at potential pot holes. I passed an estate of retirement static caravans, guarded by a gate topped with stone lions, and then all of a sudden I was by the sea, switching my lights off and leaning my bike on a metal barrier.
When my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I could see the towers of Reculver, and, just off the coast, the lights of a ship, blurred by my fogged-up glasses and the worsening rain.
“Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying”.
Le Guin, in her own introduction to the novel
My journey to Le Guin started with a dim awareness of her via a Ghibli adaptation, falling in love with Earthsea, and then carving my way through her science fiction novels like a starving man through a chicken.
The Left Hand of Darkness is so good the current edition has three introductions: one from David Mitchell, one from China Mieville, and one from Le Guin herself. Mitchell focuses on character, Mieville on ideas, and Le Guin on truth and imagination.
Le Guin’s is the best.
I write this having just finished reading the novel, and so I am still swimming in the currents of its world and characters, and blinking at the cats and flames that seem to exist outside its pages.
The book is about gender, but it is also not about that at all. It’s a love story about two people, and their long, freezing path to mutual understanding. It’s also about loneliness, and being the other. And it’s about the kind of societies we build and how the role of sex and childbearing help shape them. Because out there, a man’s lifetime in light years distant from earth, a King is pregnant.
The Hainish Cycle, the universe in which The Left Hand of Darkness exists, is a huge and perfectly realised place. This novel shows us one of its furthest flung corners – Gethen, or “Winter”: a harsh, ice age planet where life is tough and the cold is never far from your bones.
Genly Ai, anthropologist and envoy, is here as representative of the Ekumen, a federation of planets bound by mutual interest, support and trade. But on Winter he is very much alone. Though communicating back “home” is instantaneous, thanks to the miraculous “ansible” device, travel takes years. First contact is a job, seemingly, for life.
Ai’s chief ally on the planet – though it takes him much of the book to realise it – is Estravan, a politician who is both more and less than he appears.
A brooding figure, Estraven is wise to the big implications of Ai’s arrival and the likely consequences. Ai, meanwhile, is presented as a naive figure, who misunderstands Estraven due to the lingering gender prejudices of his future earth. But to be flawed is to be interesting, and both Estraven and Ai strive towards understanding on an extraordinary journey across the ice.
The Left Hand of Darkness, like all of Le Guin’s novels, is rich and subtle; clever, but never lacking in heart. Hers are wonderfully realised worlds, with characters you believe in and concepts that linger. I suspect it will reward rereading; but even if I never return to the warm beer and grim red walls of Karhide, this book will stay with me forever.
Le Guin sticks with he/him for Winterians, which is one of the book’s few missteps, as the author herself later acknowledged.