Snow falls on Herne Bay

I am told it doesn’t snow very often in the Bay, so here are some photographs for the public record, so that future historians can pore over the dusty pages of WordPress for evidence of such an event.

And while you’re here, future historians: how do websites gather dust, exactly? Or is this a knowing reference to the likely impermanence of internet based journals? Get back to me with the answers within the next two hundred years.

Wonder who these belong to…

Next Level Sketch: happy birthday to us

A year to the day (ish), I was on stage with Mr Euan Brown introducing Next Level Sketch’s debut show upstairs at the Miller. It’s all a bit of a blur now, so present James is relieved that past James wrote up a minute by minute live blog of the whole event. Quite how he managed to do this while also compering, performing, doing the door, and schmoozing, I will never know. Cynics will probably say he simply wrote it up after the event, but January 2021 isn’t the place for cynicism.

It’s nice that we’ve been able to mark the anniversary with a new podcast episode, containing some of our best material yet. And frankly I find it all a bit miraculous that we’ve managed to keep the thing going, through the various lockdowns, the blurring of work and home life for so many of our contributors, and the jarring pivot from stage to audio based writing, performing and production. We’ve all been figuring out as we go, and we’ve built new relationships and found new writing and voice acting talents as we’ve gone.

Onstage in October with Maddi and Jess.

We have lost a few people from that original group. This is only natural for a project like this, as you’d expect some churn as people’s capacity and interest waxes and wanes like a moon made of punchlines. That said, I really hope of those I see in those photos from a year ago, smiling awkwardly and with relief after our first successful show, make it back into our orbit whenever it is we are allowed back on stage again.

As someone who is still relatively new to the world of sketch comedy, I was overwhelmed by how generous everyone is with their time and their talent. I went to as many shows as I could, and was beginning to meet other sketch humans and help our own night – unique, at the time, as a space for new, non-revue style sketch comedy in London – get a name for itself.

Of course, as with the rest of the cultural sphere, this all ground to a halt in March, and we remain unsure what the world will look like in future. The pandemic, on top of a decade of austerity, has merely accelerated long term trends against people having the money, time and inclination to do this kind of thing.

But even if it’s just silly wigs and jokes about pirate Jesus, the arts feel more crucial than ever as we emerge, blinking, from this surreal and terrible year. As long as venues exist, I’m desperate to support them, either with my own individual custom or by putting nights on of my own.

Tonight I am starting a level 2 stand up comedy course, via Hoopla Impro. Mr Nick Hall, our tutor, is an excellent comedian and offers really useful feedback. I’m not sure stand up is my medium, exactly, but it’s a good opportunity to learn more about the mechanics of joke writing and to continue the search for my inner clown. Who is he, and what does he want? And more importantly, how did he get in there in the first place?

Of course, the whole thing has to be on dreaded Zoom, including the performance at the end. Depending on how the next six weeks unfold, I may even invite people to watch it.

Further up and further in

I wrote up a blog post about going for a walk, climbing a tree, nationalising the golf courses, poorly maintained public footpaths, and how leaving a town or city via any means other than the car makes you feel like a second class citizen.

Unfortunately all of this was lost, thanks to the vagaries of WordPress. So instead I’ll post some photos and tweets from the walk, and you can fill in the narrative gaps via the fertile power of your mind.

The remains of Hampton-on-sea.
His ‘n’ Hers.
Spot the public footpath.
The public footpath continues to be elusive.
Chestfield golf course, like all golf courses, should be nationalised like sausages.
Underneath the golf, a dual carriageway thunders.
I wrote a postcard from the boughs of this sturdy tree.
Tricky.
Finally free from golf.
Winter light.
Last orders, please.

Walthamstow Wassail 2021

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.

The all-seeing eye of Lucy, some toast, an apple tree.

Walking to Sainsbury’s

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 [1], 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.

Big fan of concrete water towers.

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” [2]. Young [3] and fit [4], 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 [5].

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.

Good luck crossing here.

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.

Des res on the path to the megastore.

Footnotes

[1] Whereas a duel carriageway is where you fight dandy highwaymen.

[2] If you design cities so that only people on bikes acting like cars can cycle, your city is not going to attract a lot of cyclists.

[3] Ish.

[4] Ish.

[5] 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.

Christmas cards 2020

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.

Below are some of my high quality designs.

I realised Jesus was suspended in mid-air, so provided Him with a stepladder.
Easily done.
Ditto the golden retriever: I miss you, boy.
Wide faced Santa Link.
Amiga v cat.
Eigg.
I don’t see Hobbes complaining, and he’s had it *much* worse.

Ramsgate International Hoverport

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 [1].

Space for up to 30 cars!

Sadly, hovercrafts haven’t made it into the modern age as a viable form of mass transit. They consume vast quantities of kerosene, passengers remember the noise and the vomit, and hover stewardesses recall slapping panicking passengers in the face. The service from Pegwell Bay was wound up by the early eighties, and today the only passenger service in Britain is from Southsea to the Isle of Wight.

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.

It is now a bridge to nowhere. The modernist terminal building – which can be glimpsed in this Pathé clip of Prince Philip opening the hoverport – mouldered, collapsed and was finally demolished.

A cafe, a bar and a viewing platform were all available for the modern traveller.

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.

[1] The hovercrafts were run by a Swedish company.

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.