Comedy Virgins at Cavendish Arms, Stockwell

I think tonight was technically my first ever stand up show*? It didn’t feel like it, because I’ve been compering and doing character comedy at factually inaccurate, and of course sketch comedy and hosting before that. But the nerves were certainly real – exaggerated by initially being left off the scheduled line-up – and by an audience that broadly didn’t know me.

I must thank the kindness and support of my stand up course mates, two of whom also performed on the same bill. I lack internal motivation, so knowing they would be there really helped me take the thing seriously.

I’m aware that stand up is about honing down a really tight five minutes, so naturally I started mine by riffing on a previous comic’s act (calling a baby a cunt vs. saying cunt at a baby), announcing that I wasn’t going to do any jokes, then being mean about the concept of a “bringer” night (which comedy virgins is), and comparing it to a dodgy pyramid scheme in which every comedian has to bring four friends, who then brings four friends, and so forth forever.

I was on safer ground describing the Three English Noises – a lady at the front very sweetly went for “awwwww” rather than “ooooOOOOOhhhh”, which made me crease up momentarily, and was probably the highlight of my own personal evening.

I’m still too niche and I throw too many mines in front of me. I need to stop being bored by my own material, and end this strange urge to write something entirely new each time, or even when trying to memorise my own material. It’s a weird combination of arrogance and self-defeatism: oh I’m funny enough to write something completely new and still be the best. Oh if I don’t properly try then it’s fine if I fail.

Michael won the clap-off, as deserved: he’s a brilliant and charismatic comedian who has been carving his material down like some classical marble so that there’s a laugh every time you think, and you’re taken away without ever having to try. You have to try a lot with my stuff, and I should probably construct comedy a bit better before I start deconstructing it.

A special word for Drew too. He’s really been gigging hard and just improving his set week by week, so now it seems faintly effortless. But I know from the shows of his I have attended and the mutations and evolutions in his set that I have observed to know that this kind of effortlessness takes a lot of work.

Back to the drawing board methinks…


Dawn Foster: In Memoriam

I’m struggling to find words to write about the death of Dawn Foster, but writing something seems important. We were close friends in the early to medium days of our Guardian careers, when we were both attempting to navigate the bullshit, insincerity and toxicity of modern liberal journalism, and largely failing to do so.

Dawn, far more working class and righteous than me, took on a lot of the hypocrisy, wealth and privilege of that bubble head on. I didn’t. Depressed and anxious, I never mustered the confidence to best use the platform I had chanced my way on to. I admired Dawn for pushing through, though it was not an easy journey.

For years, Dawn was a confidant and a partner in crime. As a young, intelligent, working class, left-wing women working in an industry dominated by old, stupid, right-wing, wealthy, men, Dawn was frequently mocked, bullied, and made to doubt her own sanity at times.

Thanks to her own inner confidence, hidden beneath all the uncertainties and doubts that make us all human; good people around her to help sense check and offer solidarity and love; and to her own capacity for facts, detail and calling out the bullshit that surrounds us, Dawn made all the right people angry and wrote things that were important, ignored by others, and true.

She was also fucking hilarious. There were so many running jokes that will seem meaningless to repeat here without context, but our quest to convince people Owen Hatherley once worked for PC Gamer is not one that will end any time soon. I’m now a comedian, but Dawn was the funny one.

Farewell Dawn. As Bill Callahan would have put it, you were hard to get to know but impossible to forget. I’ll miss the streams of hot gossip; the jokes and the schemes; the reassurance of someone agreeing and understanding; drinking in terrible pubs; you crashing on our sofa in Stoke Newington; and us bouncing and laughing on a trampoline at 2am somewhere we shouldn’t have been.

You were a positive force in so many lives, both IRL and online, and it’s up to all of us to remember you in the way you would have wanted: by making sure we don’t let the bastards win.

J x

Throwing banana skins in front of myself on purpose

Why do we write? Some people write because they have to; they have this restless twisting beast in their belly that tells them they have to, just as other people seek power, or revenge, or being the best at tiddlywinks.

I don’t have that, but I do respond well to a deadline. So I feel like Luigi in Mario Kart 8: throwing banana skins directly in front of my speeding vehicle, in the hope that I will remember to swerve out of the way in time, because if I don’t, I will come to most hilarious and ignominious end. Because, let’s face it, I’m not Bowser, or Dry Bones. I’m Luigi.

Anyway. Entirely unrelatedly, here’s where you can buy tickets to my next live show, and how the last one went.

Ticket Stub

I stubbed my toe today. I walk around very fast, even before I’ve decided where to go, and this afternoon my little toe on my left foot collided with the leg of a stool.

I did what anyone would do in this situation. I hopped around and swore and railed against the pain until it subsided.

Waggling my toe around now, many hours later, it doesn’t feel quite right. Have I broken it, I wonder? And what else can one stub, other than a cigarette?

I’m writing very late at night even though I have to be up early. My sleeping has been more borked than usual of late, as falling asleep before midnight sees me awake at 1:30. I am self-medicating with many things: books, cartoons, engineering podcasts. But nothing seems to work.

What I really need is a means to burn off some of the reserves of physical and mental fat I build up in fallow periods. But I don’t have many to fall back on right now. I’m isolating due to some associates testing positive for Covid; and all I really want to do is swim in the sea.

Talking of swimming: I’m doing a sponsored swim (is that the right phrase?) in memory of my awesome grandma. It’ll be cold, there’ll be too many people there, and it’s professionally organised, earnest, and for a really good cause. I’ll hate it. Please give generously.

Waitrose New Malden Car Park

My family has lived directly behind this car park for decades, being woken by the revving of early morning delivery HGVs and breathing in the polluted air of the many idling SUVs that make their way down from Coombe to queue, engines always on, along the residential, suburban streets.

A traditional Waitrose car park scene, with idling cars backed up onto a residential side road.

I know companies made it hard to complain, but I have managed to find a customer service email address and have sent Waitrose the below. It’s been a while since I’ve made a complaint like this, but the John Lewis partnership promote themselves as an ethical and sustainable business. There’s nothing ethical or sustainable about maintaining an enormous car park in a residential area. I will keep this blog updated with whatever updates I receive from them.

Email / Letter dated 2/07/2021

Dear Waitrose,

I’m afraid I wasn’t able to find an email address specifically for my local branch, so I am contacting you here in the hope that you will be able to liaise with the appropriate people.

My name is James Walsh and my family live on Howard Road, directly behind Waitrose New Malden’s car park. We have all shopped at your store for decades. My grandma died recently from Alzheimer’s, having lived here since the 1960s (before the Waitrose was a Waitrose, it was Coombe Town Hall).

Having returned to the area, I’m extremely concerned about the appropriateness of such a car park in the midst of both an air pollution and climate change emergency. We desperately need to transition away from private car use, yet Waitrose – a progressive and member-owned organisation – is happy to operate an enormous car park behind one of its local, residential-area stores.

I would have more sympathy if this was an out-of-town superstore – not much, but some – but it isn’t. People live directly behind and surrounding this car park, breathing in the fumes of its vehicles every day.

Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK today. Every day, I see queues of SUVs idling along Dukes Avenue, in your car park itself, and then along Kings Avenue and along the high street, pumping harmful emissions into the organs of local residents on a daily basis.

Some research also suggests a link between air pollution and dementia, though that has not been confirmed yet.

I would like access to Waitrose’s own assessments of the sustainability of this car park. Given all the above, maintaining a large car park in such a location is untenable given the John Lewis Partnership’s own stated ethical position on climate action, wellbeing, and social impact.

The car park should be closed as soon as possible, and I would like to see a plan and a timeline for when this will be achieved. Until then, here are a few things you can do:

1) Charge money for the car park. I believe it is currently free, which seems ludicrous in a climate emergency and in such a wealthy area. Any money raised from this could either be funnelled back into the company’s own sustainability efforts, or donated to the council to further improve walking and cycling options. Walking or cycling to Waitrose via either Kings or Dukes Avenue is a dangerous and unpleasant experience due to the large vehicles and idling drivers.

2) Convert a section of the car park, closest to the entrance to the store, to bike, mobility scooter, electric bike, electric scooter, and scooter storage. Cargo bikes are increasingly popular in south west London, and the parking for them is extremely limited.

3) Hire members of staff to manage the car park effectively, informing idling drivers that their behaviour is illegal and insisting they switch their engines off.

Once you’ve closed the car park, that space can become a wonderful community asset to New Malden and would draw more customers to your store. Here are some suggestions for what could then be done with the area:

1) An outdoor Waitrose cafe! With covered seating and grass and plants.

2) A park, with a play area for kids.

3) Adding to the above, secure and comprehensive bike parking, which could operate as a cycling hub for the whole of New Malden.

4) Still maintain a much smaller parking area for people with disabilities who are unable to use mobility scooters or hand cycles.

And that’s it! Your store will become a force for positive change, you’ll be doing your bit to fight climate change and air pollution, and you will attract more customers via more sustainable means.

Until these changes can be implemented: do you have an air quality monitor in the car park, and can the readings be accessed by the public? And if not, when do you intend to install one?

Thanks very much for reading. Keep me updated on your progress and plans, and let me know who specifically will be responsible for this and who I should be contacting directly in future.

Your website is quite a byzantine affair in terms of finding the correct email address and phone number for complaints, so I’d love a streamlined and simplified process in future.

Best regards,
James Walsh
Address supplied

Next Level Sketch, with special guests The Free Mondays

Socially distanced tables at Hoopla Impro.

Tuesday saw the return of Next Level Sketch to our spiritual home, Hoopla Impro at The Miller in London Bridge.

It was another important step on the long road back to normality, as this time we weren’t obliged to do two sets to two different audiences. We had actual special guests in the form of the wonderful Free Mondays.

Compering duties.

England had defeated Germany shortly before our doors opened, and downstairs had been part of the great national psychodrama of knock-out football. I’m not sure what the Venn Diagram intersection is between sketch comedy and Southgatians, so I hedged my bets by coming on stage to Three Lions and then making a joke about… the cricket.

In past shows, we’ve tried to introduce what we do with a sketch, the logic being that the rhythm of sketch is different to that of other comedy, and it’s a good way to ease people in. But this stand up approach felt much more natural, and I was able to relax the audience into What Was To Come.

Dan Smith and Flex Toomey in Aga-Who.

The cast were incredible. We did a quick tech-run through before the doors opened, which felt a touch nervy. But everyone upped their game eight thousand percent in front of a live audience, feeding off the energy of the crowd and each other to deliver some memorable performances.

“A waste, to leave a caravan unattended”.

It’s tricky to figure out which sketches are working the best when you’re performing, particularly with the limited capacities allowed at present.

“It’s time for you to shit or get off my grandmother” – Paul Creasy’s Mixed Metaphor World Championships.

But I really enjoyed Flex Toomey’s Alan Bennett-ian “We Love Our Caravan”, based on her own grandparents’ no-nonsense appreciation of chemical toilets and three-sided shower cubicles, a sketch of boiling underground tension and coordinated tea sipping; Paul Creasy’s Mixed Metaphor World Championships, in which myself and Daniel Smith got to fire off baffling jingo with liberating abandon while Rebecca Diez was on gleeful commentary duties; my own Fantasy Meets Tripadvisor chaos of flying octopuses and warm porridge, brilliantly performed by Madeleine Kasson and Greg Davies; and the surreal lunacy of Horse Holiday, in which horse passports and horse radio one were mere background detail in a tale of an average, family horse having a nervous breakdown on the way to Magahoof.

Euan Brown’s horse holiday.
Greg Davies and Madeleine Kasson.

After the interval came the excellent Free Mondays, whose professionalism, performance, and writing were all a joy to imbibe from my seat at the front.

A special mention must go to Phoebe Lewis for her performance as a terrifying mother on the phone to the Peppa Pig who lives in her own head, Luke Behan as Boris Johnson applying to join the cast of Sex in the City, and the whole cast for their sublime, physical performance as the band on the Titanic.

Next Level Sketch returns on the 27th July, with another fun special guest and lots more ridiculous sketches.

Cycling in Kingston

Desperately trying to memorise words, I took a walk around Kingston Upon Thames yesterday, repeating things to myself and attracting curious glances from passers-by. Was I mad, or had hands-free mobile technology reached the invisibility stage?

The council has made assorted efforts to encourage more people to walk and cycle around town; if you’re on a bike, or a mobility scooter, or a skateboard, Kingston is a better place to be than five years ago. But fundamentally, the approach is frustrating, because unless you’re in a car, one still feels like an inconvenience to be dealt with, rather than a human whose active travel choices should be encouraged.

Here, for example, is a view towards Bentall’s and John Lewis, and of the gyratory that tears the town in two and turns much of a medieval town once feted for its beauty into an urban motorway.

If you’re squinting and trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do if you’re on a bike here, the answer is: wait at several traffic lights, cycle on shared use paths, then use one narrow strip of cycle lane before being deposited amid the buses and taxis between the Bentall Centre and Waitrose. And yet this is *after* money has been spent on new infrastructure.

The problem is Clarence Street, where bikes are banned despite it being the obvious direct route from any cyclist arriving from New Malden or Norbiton trying to make it to Kingston Bridge, a crucial and popular destination due to bikes being notoriously difficult to handle in rivers. The logical route would be this:

But due to the determination to treat people on bikes as a nuisance, the prescribed route is this:

The route in red takes you along a shared path on the busy pavement outside Wilko’s, turns into a segregated cycle lane for a few hundred metres outside Pryzm nightclub, makes you wait to cross two sets of shared use traffic lights over the thundering urban motorway that surrounds and maroons Kingston station.

A shared use path outside Wilko’s

It then sends you merandering up Fife Road (with motor traffic heading in the other direction) before curving around the outside of the Bentall Centre before joining the scene outlined in the first picture.

The blue link offers a minor, more pleasant short cut along pedestrianised castle street, but this is another shared use path thronged with outdoor cafe tables and shoppers: most cyclists I saw here chose to dismount, and understandably so.

Below is the view towards the river along the pedestrianised Clarence Street. This was once an extremely car-clogged road, and with Kingston known as a place to shop above all else, you can see why the council are nervous about irritating shoppers by putting a cycle route through here. But to achieve significant modal shift, you need to think big.

Clarence Street

People in Surbiton, New Malden, and Norbiton should find it easier and more pleasant to cycle into town than to drive. At the moment, the mixture of indirect routes and shared space paths ends up pleasing no one.

It’s not all bad. To the council’s credit, a new cycle parking facility has been built by the station, though with apposite irony they’ve built the thing with stairs rather than ramps.

You wouldn’t get this in the Netherlands.

They’ve also made it a great deal more pleasant to cycle to Surbiton, with a genuine segregated path along the river and a pleasant, LTN-style backstreet route to the west of the Fairfield.

But in a climate emergency, it’s not enough. The car is still king in Kingston, and if you’re not in one, you still have to play second fiddle. During the pandemic, a lane of the A308 became a temporary cycle route, and people on bikes were treated equally to car drivers in terms of directness, safety and capacity.

The lane has long since been removed. Putting it back, and planning a safe east/west route through the town, would prove that this affluent corner of south-west London is serious about moving people out of their cars. Local Lib Dem councillors such as Banquet Records impresario Jon Tolley are refreshingly open on social media: here’s hoping they continue to back significant change and perhaps make this once lovely old town a beautiful place to be once again.

Blagdon Road Car Park

Following the death of my grandmother, I have been spending some time back in New Malden. The old house, the focal point for my Dad’s family for as long as I can remember, now sits quieter than it has in decades. No aunties turn up for afternoon cups of tea; no Irish cousins appear, unannounced, for story and song.

Unsettled by the silence, I went out for a late night walk between the rains, and ended up at Blagdon Road multi-storey car park. The concrete behemoth is a symbol of another age; of postwar prosperity, individualism, and the freedom of the open road. New Malden High Street is behind the times, and sits clogged and choked by the traffic infrastructure such as the car park was built to encourage.

When I was younger, the car park was kept open all night, and I would take the occasional insomniac wander up its ramps to its open roofed view over the suburban night. But now the ramps are closed at dusk, and any cars parked within are trapped til morning.

I liked this little office, built into the entrance ramp. I imagine it once housed an employee, a kettle, a heater, and a transistor radio. But now it looks distinctly unloved.

I headed around the back of the car park, which was an industrial, faintly dreamlike area when I was a kid. There was once a tv studio there, where one could watch daytime staples like Ready Steady Cook being recorded.

Going further back, the studio was also once the base for Jeremy Beadle’s “Beadle’s About”, a candid camera show in which the longtime You’ve Been Framed host would mastermind gentle pranks on the Great British Public. One was filmed on Blagdon Road itself: an early memory is of a car with a double yellow line painted all the way over its room and bonnet.

But perhaps I imagined the whole thing.

The studio is gone, and is now flats, and yet more car parking – this time underground. In 1973, I can understand how a place to store oodles of cars would get planning permission. In 2021 it seems bafflingly archaic.

As for the Blagdon Road Car Park, it has a certain beauty still, if you’re a fan of concrete and modernism, which I most certainly am. It would be lovely if it became a community space, with cafes and bars, rehearsal spaces and workshops, public libraries and performance areas.

But instead, I would guess that its inevitable fate will be the same as the office tower next to it: conversion to more housing that barely anyone can afford, few cousins or aunties visiting, and no stories told or songs sung in its empty deposit boxes in the sky.

What we choose to remember and how we choose to remember it

I’m struggling to sleep, so I’m up in the small hours thinking about what it is from today that I would like to remember.

Writing a journal is an act of claiming something back from otherwise wasted days, if nothing else.

As I close my eyes, I move through the tape of the day. Slowly at first, and then in fast forward. A lot of it was spent on my phone, typing into blank spaces below depictions of my friends’ faces, many of whom I have not seen in years but I carry with me in a little black rectangle, a direct and immediate link to their consciousnesses.

Some of these conversations were throwaway; others were insightful and made me think of things in a slightly different way than before. But writing about other, more ephemeral writing feels reductive, or at least tiresome. So let me think of something else.

I think from today I just want to record the smell of summer, the panic of memory, and the calm of the early hours of the morning in suburbia, when all is dark, all is calm and the only trains one can hear are the trains returning to the depot for a few hours of the rest.

Also, I want to remember fairy lights reflected off evening cheekbones, chilli oil on Italian pizza, and a cup of tea that tasted like home.

Wading through the Content Mines

Time is endless and passes in the blink of an eye. I’ve had loads to write about but I haven’t been sure where to begin; the problem with journalising is it’s easy to fall out of the habit, and when you fall out of the habit you fall off a cliff. But if someone fails to update their blog in the forest and there’s no-one around to read it, did they… and so on.

Before I see where else my sentences take me, I’d like to carve some facts into this entry. Some solid things I have done, before they disappear into the ether. This is difficult, because some of them are OF the either, like podcasts. But if someone… oh, no, not this again.

Next Level Sketch is back as a going, physical concern. We went on stage and we did some sketches, and later this month we’re going to do it all over again, this time with different sketches. And there’s a good chance we’ll be different humans too.

The main feedback from NLS’ live comeback is that performers are remembering how to be performers, but audiences are also remembering how to be audiences. I think this phenomenon is heightened in a venue like The Miller, which has done a superb job opening back up, with its cabaret style tables and strict social distancing; but it’s a small room, with a greatly reduced capacity, and when you’re spaced out it’s much harder to give oneself the permission to laugh than it is when you’re in a packed, sweaty room of seventy.

Unfortunately if appropriately, laughter is a contagion, and groups of people are gloriously unpredictable creatures. That alchemy of when a bunch of individuals becomes a *crowd* is more difficult to achieve under these circumstances, but my lord we’re going to keep giving it a bash regardless. And our capacity will increase as the rules relax and the pandemic recedes…

On that note, my new night, Factually Inaccurate Stand-Up, has its debut show on Wednesday. And, hey, tickets are still available. Come along? I shall be MCing, and our varied special guests are all interpreting our rather woolly brief in several very different but no doubt extremely entertaining ways. As I say when selecting from one of twelve child-friendly reactions before a race in Mario Kart Online: I’m using motion controls! I mean: I’m excited.

Here are some other bits and pieces I’ve been in recently.

  1. The IMDP podcast, in which I overcame not knowing EITHER of the films I was supposed to be riffing off by making my director obsessed with the impossibility of accurately portraying duck explosions via CGI.

2. Barmy Nonsense from OMF Theatre

I helped write, record and produce this AGES ago but only now are the episodes popping up on radio and on YouTube. The latest one is available below.

3. Hey it’s Next Level Sketch! The podcast! I’m so proud of this thing, and how we’ve kept things ticking over throughout assorted lockdowns and down-downs. Our latest episode is set in a FANTASY REALM, and I think we’re getting funnier and funnier. And odder. Definitely odder.

And that’s it! Hopefully see some of you other humans on Wednesday. And I shall write MORE BLOG POSTS soon. I have many exciting projects in the pipeline for this summer, and I will launch them as soon as I remember how to get out of bed.

J x