As rare as shark’s teeth

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.

Turns out it was a dog.

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.

Happy hunting.

The Inaugural Next Level Sketch Awards

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 [1], and generally turned the entire ceremony into a complete laughing stock. Which, of course, was the intention.

From left: Me, Euan, Mick Fleetwood / Paul

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.

Greg gave his acceptance speech in Klingon.

You can watch London Dungeon on our YouTube Channel

Favourite Music in a Sketch

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 [2] 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.

You can watch ‘Puntastic’ via our YouTube channel

Favourite Character Name

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

Favourite Advert

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. 

You can watch ‘Traumatic Time Travel’ on our YouTube channel

Favourite Delivery on the Podcast

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.

Charles can be heard in the Next Level Sketch episode ‘Never Knowingly Underslothed’.

Favourite Pet

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

Cody and Laika in rehearsal at the Royal Festival Hall.

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”.

‘Ornithologists’ can be heard in the Christmas episode of the Next Level Sketch podcast.

Grossest Sketch

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 [3] to be committed to film.

Favourite Impression

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.

Elon Musk can be heard in the Next Level Sketch podcast episode ‘Billionaires in Space’

Honourable Mentions

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.

In Memoriam

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.

Footnotes

[1] Metaphorically speaking

[2] I suppose all characters are imaginary.

[3] I’m not quite sure why this Sketch was not captured on film :/

Whitstable

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.

Cycling in the dark: an appreciation

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.

Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

“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[1] 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.

[1]Le Guin sticks with he/him for Winterians, which is one of the book’s few missteps, as the author herself later acknowledged.

Cliffe

On Friday I went to the estuary to meet a dog.

Arthur.

We met at the village of Cliffe, which feels like a village at the end of the world. The road ends at the church, and then there’s mud, and marsh, and channels of water leading down to the grey old Thames. But humans have live here a long while: there is record of settlement in AD43, during the Roman occupation, when there was a crossing point over the river.

The estuary.

Our walk did not start well. We took a path through the edge of a field, which headed gradually uphill, passing grouse pens and dogging spots. Eventually we admitted defeat and doubled back, but not before being rewarded with a view of birds and the river from our chalky vantage point.

The view is of Cliffe Pools Nature Reserve. If you like birds, there are plenty of them available here. Avocets, lapwings. Little egrets. Lagoons filled with teals, wigeons, shovelers, mallards, gadwalls and pintails.

In the back of my mind was the fear that this whole area was scheduled to be turned into a beyond-parody post-Brexit theme park, but I was wrong. That’s planned for the Swanscombe peninsula, on the other side of Gravesend.

Another prime dogging spot.

After a few more wrong turns, we finally found the path down to the nature reserve, and the landscape opened up on front of us. We passed a birdwatcher armed with binoculars and a tripod, and some cyclists trundling the uneven paths, until we could at last stand on the estuary wall and wave at cargo ships bound for the North Sea and beyond.

The Celestine. Destination: Vlissingen, the Netherlands.

Reculver

Today’s bike jaunt took me to the edge of Thanet, and the remains of the Roman fort at the head of the Wantsum Channel [1].

Reculver.

It’s a lovely spot. It reminds me of Dunwich, with its ruined monastery and the sense that this place used to be more important than it now is. And this is of course true: it was once a thriving port and market, but the geographic eddies of time were not kind to Reculver. Now it’s a pub, a cafe, and a few caravan parks, one advertising over-45s living with a photo of the sexiest pensioner couple I ever did see [2].

The cycle down was an easy four or five miles, with Herne Bay and its village-suburbs melting away into a quiet country lane with high hedgerows and occasional glimpses of the ruin to come.

Turbines.

From the fort, one has an excellent view of the offshore wind farm, which sits solidly where once the bouncing bomb was test-bounced. Ah, the bouncing bomb: a morale-boosting gimmick rather than crucial turning point of WW2, to be sure. But it feels exactly the kind of naffness that belongs here, for all of Reculver’s ghostly timelessness.

I got lost in a new-build housing estate on the way back. I was trying to find another route close to the dual carriageway, and fully expected to find at least a footpath or a pedestrian bridge taking me back to Herne Bay proper. But nothing linked up, and I was forced to retrace my pedals, as this Strava map makes clear.

No way out. Well: one way out…

I felt sorry for everyone who lived here, on the edge of town, only accessible by car, with no shops or community life anywhere near. So much of the housing we build is like this now: cheap, sprawling, and utterly unsustainable.

Monorail sadly not pictured or existent.

I made my way back out of the estate, along the road which slaloms back and forth to encourage drivers to slow down, which mixed results. You wouldn’t want your kids playing in the streets here.

Heading back across the bridge over the railway line, I was greeted with a glorious sight: the concrete Herne Bay water tower, standing mighty and proud on Mickleburgh Hill despite its lack of actual water based function. It does at least seem to be providing excellent mobile phone coverage.

Sweet concrete.

From here, it was a lovely downhill jaunt back into Herne Bay itself, with its mildly frightening roundabouts and large population of white vans and extremely old pensioners hobbling across the road without looking. I admired these people for their bloody-mindedness and the irritation they caused to some of the aforementioned white vans [3].

Post-travels, it was a joyous evening, for the most part [4]. My friend won a translation prize. She said she had no chance of winning. I said she would win. I guess this means I can claim at least part of the credit, right? I made her a congratulatory meme of her with the pixelated sunglasses and the massive joint so popular with the internet I remember existing ten years ago. I will publish it below and hope she never sees it. [5]

Footnotes

[1] Long since silted up, but once the divider between the isle and the rest of Kent.

[2] I didn’t get off my bike to take a photo, but trust me: these sexy retirees were not moving to this executive caravan park to settle down, oh no. Relentless, non-stop septuagenarian boning was heavily implied.

[3] Here I have fallen into the local newspaper trap of describing white vans as autonomous, even self-aware vehicles. Like in the headline, “van drives into pensioner”. Or “Woman carelessly walks into HGV’s blind spot”. I mean white van *drivers*.

[4] Today the post-lockdown tiers were announced. Kent is stuck in tier three, making various Christmas plans either unlikely or downright impossible. Also, emotions.

[5] Congratulations Ruth. I am unjustifiably proud…

Herne Bay to Canterbury

I cycled to Canterbury and back today, out of desperation to get further than half a mile from the house.

From Herne Bay, the easiest route by bike takes you out past Greenhill and over the Thanet Way. A sorry-looking ex-pub decomposes in its plot next to the dual carriageway.

You then pass up through Thornden Wood, on a road that meanders pleasantly and stops most passing drivers from picking up too much speed. This joins Hackington Road, which brings you up to Tyler Hill and, from there, the delightful drop down into Canterbury from St Stephen’s Hill.

Canterbury from St Stephen’s Hill
Excellent seagull action.

The city centre was very quiet for lunchtime. The straw boater-ed man in his sausage van was not doing a roaring trade in sausages. Without its usual gaggle of tourists and English language students, the streets of Canterbury took on a spookily deserted air, as though the world had ended and no one had got around to telling me yet.

Nary a French TEFL student to be seen.

I cycled on some cobbles and ummed and ahhed about buying a coffee. But buying coffee was a retroactive justification for a trip that didn’t need one.

So I got back on my saddle and returned to Herne Bay. St Stephen’s Hill is less fun on the way back – particularly when a woman in the passenger seat of a Ford screams at you as they pass, in an attempt to get you to fall from your bike – but from the top, it’s downhill all the way, through the woods and fields, until the view opens out and you can see the line of blue and the offshore wind turbines of home.

Cats and Podcast Production

The title to this blog post could have been written by an algorithm, but it is an accurate summary of my weekend. I glued together the latest episode of Next Level Sketch, like a cut and shunt but with clown cars. I edited out the silences, and added some jingles and an intro. I’m super proud of it, and would be honoured if you would listen to the finished episode below.

And now, onto the important business of cats.

The cats are not mine, but one of them has taken a liking to me. I post these photos in the hope that the internet still has spare capacity for more cats, and that this doesn’t tip us over the edge of a cat photo event horizon.

A Universal Translator for Fish

Like Elastica but with less heroin addiction, my podcast Sketches That Never Quite Made It made a belated return last night, after a three month hiatus.

I have an inexhaustible supply of these.

It was good to come back to it with fresh ears and new bad ideas. Listening back to earlier episodes, the podcast has taken a while to find its legs but when it works – like in episode six, when myself and Paul Creasy discuss both the technical and moral problems with a sketch I wrote about Sexy Crufts – it makes a cracking listen.

The idea was to get guests on who are happy to discuss their own failed sketches, which we’ve achieved in the past; but when people are shy, it seems I am always happy to oblige with my own sketches that are fundamentally a bit broken in some crucial way.

This particular creative gambit definitely qualifies as an eccentric lockdown invention, but I’m really pleased I’ve stuck with it, and really grateful to the special guest stars from the Next Level Sketch gang who have taken the time to come on and give their thoughts. In the process, I think we are all learning something about how not to write sketch comedy.

The latest episode is about fish, existentialism and crash test rabbits, and features Paul and Muireann as the sketch inquisitors. It’s available on most podcast platforms, or you can listen via the embed below.