Cycling London to Edinburgh: Fringe or bust (part one)

Day 1: London Victoria to Market Harborough Travelodge

The train from Brighton to London.

London is a difficult place to escape. It always takes longer than you expect.

Ian Nairn drove out of London on the Edgware Road, on his way to being charmed by Northampton, horrified by the M1, and bemused by urban clearance on the edge of Man

For me it was cycling along what was once the Great North Road, via a thousand memories and occasional fever dreams.

Traffic beyond the A1.

Finchley. Ash. The bones of a former Wimpy. And finally escaping the city, over a bridge over the A1. An important moment.

Lunch was taken outside a nice deli in St Albans, next to a man who looked like Phil Collins, who amused himself pouring his coffee between three identical paper cups.

St Albans.

A flotilla of expensive prams cruised past me. An older couple blinked at the menu. I felt out of place. It was time to move on.

At the edge of town, the road becomes fast, with no crossings for pedestrians. Flowers around the railings a memorial to the human cost.

My route from here to Market Harborough was more beautiful than expected. To my left, the sharp ascent of planes taking off from Luton; later, to my right, rumours of Bedford.

Bedfordshire.

Milton Keynes, Kettering, Wellingborough: all were expertly avoided.

For a mile of quiet, I enjoyed the company of a kestrel overheard, navigating by my country road.

Dusk brought one beautiful hare, gangling without a care in the world.

Same.

100 miles after leaving Victoria, with dusk falling, I arrived in Market Harborough. For the last few miles, my road followed the East Midlands main line, the rail route I’ve travelled more than any other.

Pavement parking and three wheelers: the midlands.jpeg.

I know the view out the carriage window off by heart; this was the first time I’d travelled this way under my own steam.

A train does not cause the scar in the landscape a motorway does, but still: it was all much more memorable than I was expecting.

The view from my hotel room was of a delightful brutalist courtyard. As is typical for a little market town after twelve years of austerity, there was plenty of violence of a different nature out there on this summer Thursday night. In the local spoons, the conversation was Daily Mail and Boomer Facebook bingo.

Definitely send migrants to Rwanda because they’re all murderers. The problem is police can’t use violence any more. All travellers should be kicked out of the country. George Floyd: the policeman was framed. LGBTQ+ pride: “it’s like wearing a swastika”.

HOUSE!

I moved to a less extremist part of the pub, near the back. Nearby, two young women advised the resting bouncer, about a person unknown: “you’ve got to watch him. He cut a guy’s ear off last week.”

Day 2: Market Harborough to Nottingham

Given the conversations I had overheard the previous night, I was keen to get out of Market Harborough as quickly as possible. After a disappointing sausage roll, I headed north.

Little of note happened. There were some beautiful villages, looming at me from a hill that I was then obliged to climb.

I met a couple of other cyclists, neither of whom believed I was cycling to Edinburgh. The second, a kind man from Wales, told me that my trip was his dream. And then my chain fell off and he disappeared over the hill.

Heading towards Leicestershire.

Nairn coined a word for the dreary, drab residential landscapes on the edge of town: subtopia.

The modern day equivalent is the new built estates, with no public transport, no facilities, and no hope, encircled by dual carriageways and plastic grass. In an era of climate change, they are already obsolete, and I feel so sorry for any children trapped on one.

The last of these is just off the A52 – Brian Clough Way – which I join briefly before turning towards West Bridgeford.

The last time I cycled to Nottingham was with Ruth, via Cambridge and Melton Mowbray. Now as then, I got to experience the emotionally resonant journey across Trent Bridge, up through the Meadows, and to the Castle, and Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. I met my parents and had a Radler.

The modern equivalents are far worse.

Bill Oddie memorial wildlife spotted en route

🦅 3 birds of prey (I think kestrels and possibly a falcon, but I am no non-Star Trek bird of prey expert)

🐰 Two rabbits and one beautiful hare at dusk

🐖 An unidentified creature in the undergrowth that might have been a wild boar

🦌 A young deer who nearly got hit by an Audi

Forever in our hearts memorial roadkill spotted en route

🪶 Two pigeons

🦫 One weasel

Balfron Tower: then and now

A short, insomniac post from me, on this grey Wednesday morning, to note that flats for the refurbished Balfron Tower are finally on sale.

Oliver Wainwright has all the grim details here. And here’s what I wrote about it back in 2015.

And on a related, entertaining-timing note, here is an investigation into the landlord antics of Katharine Hibbert, who once offered to show me her flat in the Balfron, back when she was living there as founder of the controversial property guardian company dot dot dot.

The post-public story of Balfron, as slow and inevitable as a melting glacier, is one of neglect, greed, social cleansing, art washing, and exploitation.

It’s a parable for our times, and our times do not go well.

Horse Passports at Extra Topping

“Wow, so we’ve both changed our names since we last performed together.”

Not quite, Selena Mersey, fabulous musical comedian and stage name of the lovely Hel MacCormack.

What had actually happened was: on Friday evening myself, Paul Creasy and Nadine Bailey made our debut performance as Horse Passports, a sketch comedy trio from the Next Level Sketch stable, at Simon Topping’s comedy showcase above a pub in Hove.

Horse Passports.

Next Level Sketch still abides, but it was a lovely thing to perform as a trio.

I was offered the spot by Simon Topping, a man who I had not met IRL before and so could quite easily have been a murderer, posing as a comedy promoter in order to lure unsuspecting performers to their grisly deaths.

Instead, he turned out to be a lovely man with the excellent idea of having a night dedicated to everything APART FROM stand-up.

So as well as us doing sketch there was improv from the Tea and Toast, extremely filthy songs and brilliant asides from the aforementioned Selena, and fun and inclusive hosting from Mr Topping himself, who showed enjoyable confident and stage presence in how he allowed his initial gambit (as Henry VIII!) the time to breathe.

We were on last, which obviously I’m going to describe as headlining, and I think it went well. We were under-rehearsed – by which I mean, we hadn’t rehearsed – and to help break up the show I’d put together some very silly pre-recorded messages that Paul hadn’t even heard before arriving off the train from London.

We did two sketches written by each of us. From where I was standing Jesus is a Pirate and Forest Trickster got the best receptions, but the recorded intro to New Car I think helped people understand what was going on more quickly (as did Nadine’s “be more of a west London geezer” direction).

Also! I really enjoyed getting to be in my Ken Loach sketch and being specifically the kind of professional contrarian that I write to the BBC to complain about in Paul’s Newsnight sketch.

The night finished at the MJ Hibbett-style reassuring time of 9:30. After this we retired downstairs to discuss double fisting with Selena and her friend Fi, dog sitting with Simon, and how train timetables created the concept of standardised time with Tea and Toast, one of whom owns more ukuleles than me.

It was all splendidly, uncomplicatedly, joyously fun.

A special mention too for my lovely new Brighton friend Ros; it was really kind of her to come along and support us, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to her and her friend afterwards.

Horse Passports will return.

Photo: Simon Topping.

Maybe semi is pushing it

I’m a semi-professional pet sitter.

Every so often I pack up my more useful possessions, go to some London dwelling, and spend a week or two pottering around, as though I could afford to live there.[1]

I’m quite proud of my 100% pets not dying on my watch record. Not all pet sitters can say that.

Most of my competitors, in fact, have an “in memoriam” section of their websites, with all the dogs, cats, turtles and fish they have unwittingly killed are listed, alongside headshots, cause of death etc. 

This is a legal requirement in many counties.

Anyway. Today I headed down to suburbia to meet my latest sittee. An old dog belonging to an Irish couple known vaguely to my dad. I get a lot of my bookings via the pub grapevine.

They turn up, late, which stresses me out somewhat as I am supposed to be at a producer meeting. They are, as always, extremely lovely and charming, though I note with some confusion that they’re carrying a massive bag full of kibble, bowls, treats, and other canine paraphernalia.

Ah. Oh shit. They think I have my own house for the dog to stay in.

Around now, it would have been appropriate for the Curb Your Own Enthusiasm theme tune to start playing in my head.

As we made small talk about the dog’s love for ready salted crisps, my brain was weighing up the options. The first and funniest – and also, awfully, the most tempting, as I hate all and any awkward conversations – was to just brazen it out. 

Yeah, sure! I live round here. I’ll just head on off with your prize Labrador, don’t worry about it. And then figure out things from there. Walk into the sea.

The lovely Irish lady is on her second glass of wine. They’re off to New York, where a relative is getting married. Their role is to sing and tell stories, the full, token auld country representatives.

It’s time to own up. 

“So… why have you brought all the dog’s stuff out with you?”

No reaction. All my fears are true.

“You know I live in Brighton, right?”

It takes literal seconds for this information to go in.

“Usually, I just stay and look after the house while the dog owner is away?”

More seconds.

Their plane is at 4:30am tomorrow morning.

“Don’t tell John, let me explain it to him, but that’s absolutely fine”.

But John already knows. He’s talking to an old fella at the bar, who knows me well, who has already asked “so where exactly is James bringing the dog, then?”

It is indeed fine. Everything’s fine. John goes in a taxi back to the house to pick me up some spare keys. I just need to get there at comedy o’clock tomorrow morning.

And I run back to the station, and to the producer meeting, for light ribbing at my customary lateness and to rest my head upon the table.

[1] Often with the lyrics to “Straight Life” by Black Box Recorder running around my head. Key line “lives in a tin on top of the wardrobe”.

Ramen 2013

In a ramen restaurant near Tottenham Court Road, with Bella. 

Nine years before. In a Korean restaurant a few metres away, now long demolished for Crossrail. I don’t remember what we talked about but I remember how I felt.

This has been a summer of hauntology. A job cycling around London, memories bursting from every street and alleyway. Friends visiting the country for the first time in years, and conversations picking up after half a decade like nothing has happened or changed.

I have a bit of a mental block when it comes to writing comedy. I’m seeing plenty, and hoping that I will become a better writer through a process of osmosis. Like a shit army, I am always regrouping.

When my mental health goes through a trickier patch, the distance I am able to plan into the future recedes into the immediate. 

Life becomes a series of spinning plates. 

Remember to re-order anti-depressants. Have you leaned your lines for the next show? Who did you arrange to meet up with tonight and how damaging would it be to disappoint them? 

Did you print out and post that important form? Why is a postcard you wrote a month ago rotting in your tote bag?

How quickly is the climate breaking down?

Have you eaten? What needs to be sorted out at right this moment, or preferably a month ago, to avoid bad situations in the future? 

What would happen if I – not you – just let them all stop spinning and crash to the floor, and will the consequences be as bad as I imagine?

In other news, I’ve decided I’d really like a pet duck.

I’ve started writing regularly about comedy for the Morning Star.

Back in the day I had a culture column for them, writing about everything from books to video games. I seem to remember having a very earnest byline photo and a pun-based column title – “Culture Matters”, I believe. I remember being super pleased when my column would appear on the same day as that of a little-known Labour backbencher called Jeremy Corbyn.

My editor was a lovely old communist called Cliff Cocker, who would sometimes misunderstand some of the references in the copy but was ever-enthusiastic about my writing style. I was sad to hear of his death last year, but you can’t say it wasn’t a life well lived.

So far I’ve written about Sharlin Janan’s fabulous monthly night Brown Sauce, and the debut night of Julia Masai’s outsiders jamboree Comedy From Hell.

Hopefully in the lead up to Edinburgh I’ll do some interviews and features too – watch this space.

Cycling up Ditchling Beacon

“Be careful”.

Usually I ignore it. But this time, I bite:

“Do you say that to all your friends heading out, or just the ones cycling? Do you like my new cycle cap?”

“Why a cap and not a helmet?”

Cyclists like me head out on their rides knowing that if someone in a few tonnes of metal decides to kill them, most will presume it’s your own fault.

Particularly if you’re not wearing a little plastic head guard, high vis, and whatever other baubles that are deemed to keep you as safe as Hove station was yesterday.

Sometimes you just want a “have a nice ride”, rather than a reminder of the huge amounts of arbitrary violence out there and the blame you’ll receive if you fall victim to it.

This conversation remained on my mind as I cycled up Ditchling road, gradually escaping Brighton’s upper suburbs and golf courses for the South Downs beyond.

They’ve stuck in a new cycle and walking path for the last half mile up towards the A27, smooth and wide and well surfaced. I took it happily, only to be dumped back with a sudden “rejoin carriageway” into the cars queuing at the top. This is still better than what was there before.

Awkwardly onto and off Coldean Lane, with its drivers itching to get onto the dual carriageway, and then you’re up on to the Ditchling Road proper.

The landscape opens up, and the temperature drops a degree or two. It was uphill but I felt like I was flying.

There are a lot of cyclists who use this route, and drivers have learned, for the most part, to be patient. This side of the downs is the gently sloping one – pity the poor cyclists coming up the other side, in the lowest gear on a winding hill road, drivers revving their engines behind.

I made it to the top and pulled into the car park, for a £4 99* and a selfie. I could see for miles, and felt like cycling on to London on a whim.

Instead, I turned back into the wind that had been pushing me all the way up, and flew back down to Brighton.

There are a few memorable sights on the way down. There’s the football stadium nestled in the foothills to the left; the weird London Eye style lollipop tower poking its head over the terraced houses leading to the sea.

And further off to the right, the scar cutting through the landscape that is the A27, carving its way to Shoreham and beyond.

You’ll have noticed the amount of times I’ve mentioned cars and drivers in this blog post. And, truthfully, I don’t usually worry this much. I am out of practice at non-urban riding. I’ll get « used to it » again, the way one gets used to air pollution or living on a main road.

And yet.

I got to thinking how Ditchling Beacon could so easily be, as it were, a rural LTN – keep the car park at the top open for visitors, but don’t allow through traffic. Does this sound utopian or just selfish? I don’t know.

But as I prepare for a long journey across England next month, I wonder how many more overtakes I will need to flinch at, knowing that if the driver is drunk, distracted or careless, this will be the last thing I ever think.

* Captive market

Next Level Sketch with Daniel Willis and Just These Please

Next Level Sketch with Just These Please. Not pictured: Daniel Willis on a train to Brighton

I can’t take too much credit for this one.

Distracted by writing and learning a song to perform at my sister’s impending wedding, approximately 95% of the organisation, preparation and planning was done by my fabulous co-producers Paul Creasy and Nadine Bailey, pictured here, as everyone should be, on the far left.

I had also recused myself from the cast, which meant all I had to do was host and usher. This was about all I was capable of in any case: my last bike job of a hectic day was shifting a sofa for a lovely food bank worker in Somerstown, meaning I arrived somewhat late and flustered.

Using an imaginary mic.

After an intro of relentless pro-union propaganda – with jokes! – I vacated the stage for our first guest act, Daniel Willis.

Dan is bringing his debut sketch show to Edinburgh this summer, ably assisted by his director, NLS and Factually Inaccurate tech legend Jamie Clarke. Here he previewed twenty minutes of it, and from what we saw on Wednesday it’s going to be a very funny and revealing delve into the psyche of “Dan Willis”, a man.

His interaction with a legion tech cues – essentially having a conversation with recorded versions of himself and, I assume, other members of his sketch group The Free Mondays – remains an impressive feat, and I urge you to go see him perform in “Scotland” this summer.

Hey it’s Next Level Sketch! Over the past year we’ve built up a really lovely core of performers and writers, and we continue to develop our own style from our many-headed beast of a writing process.

Paul Creasy and a horse.

A special word for James Turner, who marked his return with a couple of brilliant and extremely stupid sketches with delightfully satisfying punchlines, and to Shruti Sharma, who has gone from helping out on tour to being a delightfully sardonic on-stage presence in a matter of months.

And thanks, also, to Roderick, for being the Jesus of my dreams.

Flex Toomey, Jesus, Nadine Bailey, Manisha Patel, and Judas.

Our headliners were returning champions Just These Please, performing in front of a black void with mysterious transformative properties*.

Previewing their entire hour-long Edinburgh show, Honestly No Pressure Either Way, JTP remain “Top Gun” writers and performers, learning their craft, like most sketch comedians, on a nuclear powered aircraft carrier in the mid-1980s.

They’re all such strong performers. One thing I love to do while watching them is keeping an eye on whoever has least to do in a particular sketch: they’re still giving it their all, as if the whole world is watching, which – given their social media numbers – is pretty much the case.

Sketch Comedy tends towards the nice, but these four are especially lovely, and we heartily recommend their Edinburgh show to you and all your many lovers.

* They brought a screen with them to get changed behind.

Christian Brighty: Playboy, Brighton Fringe

I first saw Brighty as 1/3 of clown collective Privates, which is an unusual number of balls. Here, he plays a very different kind of testicle in the shape of eighteenth century heartbreaker Lord Christian Brighty – an ancestor, perhaps – in this very enjoyable hour of caddery, invisible ballroom partners, and ships struggling with a surfeit of semen.

The first trick with playing a character is establishing who you are, quickly, and Brighty does this by first disparaging and then flirting with the audience, accompanied by some fantastic prop work and a very funny routine about Cupid.

His character is a bastard, a sex-obsessed flibbertigibbet straight out of Romantic central casting, but he is clearly a lovely and charming man.

Sometimes this gets confusing, as Brighty the performer is extremely kind and gentle with the audience – gleaning some of the funniest moments of the night, particularly when he asks a shy young man to paint him the Georgian equivalent of the unsolicited dick pic – and this clashes occasionally with Brighty the absurd send-up of all the sexist assumptions of all those period dramas.

There are puns. There is exceptional prop and voiceover work. There are horrifying prosthetics. There is an unexpected interlude in the language of love (not German).

And in the end, there is a point, and a drawing of a line between the mores of yesterday and the developing rules of today, where mainstream society and culture is struggling to keep up with the explosion in post-heteronormative relationships, and some people – let’s face it, it’s men – taking advantage of the uncertainty in between.

Or else it’s just a ruddy good excuse for some naughty jokes. One of the two.

Christian Brighty: Playboy will be at Edinburgh I’m sure

Brighton Fringe: Luke Rollason: Bowerbird and Gämez presents: TV Pilots Live!

In a city as iconoclastic as Brighton, the Jubilee was always going to be weird. Friday was a combination of marauding day trippers and unbothered locals, with the Union Jack per square mile quotient pleasingly low.

Luke Rollason I first saw a few years ago at The Vault Festival, dressed as a sperm. His current show, Bowerbird, has developed gradually over the past few months – including some experimentation at shows I produce – so it was with an entirely undeserved parental pride that I watched the full hour play out to a rapt audience at the spiegel tent.

Even by the exceptional standards of modern clowning, Rollason has a singular physical charm, and it was a pleasure to watch him unleash these skills on a substantial and occasional unwilling audience.

Slight in body but big in hair and eyebrow, Luke is the master of the intentional mistake. From extension cable manipulation while dressed as a preposterous lamp to surreal interludes by human sofas, there’s a beautiful warmth and kindness to this exceptionally stupid material.

Gämez are a Hoopla house team specialising – as the name suggests – in short form improv. TV pilots is a lovely conceit to dredge fresh comedic silt out of some old and familiar games, and despite the small audience – like I said, it was a strange Friday – the troupe gave their all.

I know good performers treat triumph and disaster as the twin imposters that they are said to be, but the energy in the room for TWO paying punters was incredible to see.

It almost felt like we were lucky enough to be at a particularly banging rehearsal, as stupid telenovelas, sweaty and surreal dating shows, and nonsensical interviews all flew by with plenty of laughs and unexpected moments. I loved how much these performers evidently took delight in each other’s cleverness and on-stage successes.

I hear they had a proper audience on Saturday, too, and it’s no less than what they deserve. Go see them at Hoopla Impro if you get a chance, they’re usually around or about.

Luke Rollason and Gämez will, I expect, be performing at the Camden Fringe festival.