Burning Anger-The case of the charity and the crime writer

First of all, I’ll say, I wish Wearside Women in Need were not thinking of organising a Bonfire Night burning of “Fifty Shades of Grey”. I wish they’d gone for an amnesty on the book perhaps, in which they’d bury copies in fifty shades of concrete. Something else, almost anything else, to make what is for them a valid and necessary point about the way some media and cultural depictions of violence don’t help the cause of many of the women (and men) they help in one of the most deprived areas of the country and with one of the highest levels of domestic violence.

They’re playing with fire- excuse the pun- in aligning themselves with book burners. It makes their message too easily lost by people leaping on righteous moral ground and making Nazi comparisons before you can say “Christian Grey’s a numpty”.

However, I’m not much liking the spectacle of best selling novelist Sophie Hannah trying to get thousands of emails sent to them, and thinking of combining a spa weekend with a protest at the burning. (Five star Seaham Hall’s nearby and lovely though). I don’t like the idea that time that could be given to women with terrible problems will be given over to answering annoyed writers, and I really can’t get my head round women cowering in a hostel whilst a load of Kindle-clutching writers come to sit in jacuzzis and pour further fuel on the fire. (Sophie has replied to me and said she was joking about the spa but not the protest though). Something’s not sitting right about this power imbalance however…

Historically there have been two main reasons for book burning. 1) To prop up a regime by destroying opposition or, for that regime to oppress and obliterate the culture of another. 2) In contempt at what the burned book represents. In the first category of course, fall the Nazis, those who destroyed the Libraries at Baghdad and Alexandria, China’s Qin Dynasty and the fictional institutionalised Book Burning of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In the second category are more often localised protests, often Religious in nature- from the burning of Beatles records after they made the Jesus comparison, to recent burnings of the Quran, and of course the Satanic Verses.

The Wearside Women in Need protest falls squarely in the latter category and whilst ill-conceived, seems very far away from being “Keen to mimic the depravity of the Nazis” as Hannah suggests. I hope their committees/governing structures are looking at how far a publicity stunt like this may overstretch their own resources and obscure the message. But I don’t think that a small charity run a shoestring and doing good work in an area where it’s needed, is an appropriate target for the active wrath of people with very loud voices. In the end, as usual, it’s the truly voiceless who will suffer.

Three Tiers for Stand up Comedy

The person of certainty will respond to any criticisms about the narrowness of the current stand up comedy field with pursed lips, folded arms and the statement intended to refute any wishy washy relativism; “At the end of the day, funny is funny” they’ll pronounce. I agree that there’s a fundamental democracy of stand up comedy. If somebody consistently makes audiences laugh a lot, then they will do well. However…I think this doesn’t take into account the three levels where stand up comedians typically begin their careers- and “Funny is funny” only applies to the top tier;



Top Tier; Start off with a fully formed comedy voice. They may begin with an innate or learned self-confidence which makes them resilient to early failures and knock backs. Higher proportion of public school folk start in this tier. A higher proportion of this group than any other had good relationships with parents or primary carers and carry that sense of trust with them over to audiences. Thus a virtuous circle of comedy learning is able to take place. Or, this ability to make an audience relationship is hard-won due to strenuous attempts to overcome difficulties at relating to other people and a strong need to do so. Crucially, this work has been done before they start doing stand up.They are comedy-literate when they start, having consumed and discussed a large amount of comedy, though not necessarily stand up. They may have already been writing or creative in other arenas. Many will be in their later twenties/thirties. They’re able to learn quickly and hone their sets using audience feedback. Also helps to have life circumstances which give a sense of urgency around the need to progress quickly and commit- and the means for them to do so. Have a stable and clear persona and a good awareness of what it is and how to use it. Will be able to do well at competitions straight away and seamlessly progress through longer sets, Edinburgh shows and telly exposure. No matter what other obstacles they face, this group will appear to prove that “Funny’s Funny”. They’re the top five per cent. Will be described as “Naturals”. Examples; John Bishop, Sarah Millican, Russell Howard, Jack Whitehall.


Bottom Tier; This group are more like deluded X Factor contestants. There is always something missing in their relationship with an audience. A jarring. They’re comedy illiterate but incapable of recognising it. No matter what other natural advantages they have, they will never make it. For them, funny’s never funny. They may hang around the open mic circuit for years. Some of them become promoters. The bottom fifteen per cent.


Middle Tier; Most of us start stand up somewhere in this middle tier. We vary across a spectrum of neediness and our ability to communicate with others and can use stand up comedy to improve at this (Though sometimes it hinders us). We’re anywhere from comedy geeks to utterly unaware of comedy outside our own experience of laughing with people, but it may take a lot of practice before being able to translate this into our own comedy “Voice”. For the first few years we may still be working out who we are, how we sound, even how we dress, due to age, life experience or social circumstances, so our persona may be in constant flux. We may have had parents or carers who didn’t accept us, or ones who thought we could do no wrong, but we will need a lot of stage time to work out where our own and our audiences boundaries are and how to trust each other. We may find that families, jobs, poverty and geographical distance hamper our ability to get stage time and therefore we may stop and start doing gigs. Those of us in this tier benefit most from development opportunities offered to comedians- workshops, clubs like “The Stand” that offer clear progression, competitions (when we’re ready), internet forums and peer feedback. We’re also particularly vulnerable to audiences or other comics criticizing or not accepting aspects of our persona or material. Too offensive, too bland, too girlie, too blokey, too hack, too off the wall… Those in the middle tier need the safe spaces created by well run comedy nights who recognise that stage time (and sometimes being crap and/or offensive) are part of the process. Those in this middle tier suffer most from reductive arguments about what comedy “should” be, also from comparisons with the paths of those in the Top Tier and from fears that, after all, we may be in the Bottom Tier. Given a good following wind and the advantages offered by social and cultural factors surounding stand up comedy at any given moment, we can make anything from excellent high profile careers in comedy, to happy hobbyists. Without that good following wind and advantageous social and cultural factors surrounding stand up comedy at that moment, a higher proportion of working class people, women, unlucky people and minority groups will fall by the wayside. I would argue that for about eighty per cent of the people who start out doing stand up, funny isn’t just funny…

Comedy which Kills women

From my column in Newcastle’s Journal newspaper, August 17th.


Stand up comedy needs darkness, visceral unpleasantness and naked bile and anger. And that’s just Frankie Boyle’s set. However, what it maybe could do without is the pervasive, offensive woman-hating that seems to invade the material of the  very young lads who are filling our stages in the hope of getting their first DVD deal by the time they’ve been weaned off the breast. I don’t want to think that the North East is any worse than any other region in the country for  blatant misogyny, however I sometimes have a tiny, sneaking suspicion that it’s not up there as the first place Germaine Greer would look for a holiday home. I speak having just compered a new act night. I wasn’t very good at doing it-I’ve become rusty through compering too many poetry nights where the biggest audience reaction comes from clearing their throat a bit too loudly. Nonetheless, by the time the third or fourth bloke had detailed their woman-murdering ejaculatory fantasy, I wished that I’d written some searing material which would both prove my rapier wit on behalf of the whole of womankind and lead them to a profound political conversion which would end with them holding up a banner at the Celebrity Big Brother launch saying “More Women of Substance in the Diary Room Chair Please”. Instead, I suggested one of the lads could headline a feminist conference and left it at that. This came in a week where two women in very different contexts- one a BBC production assistant and one a council worker-reluctantly admitted to me that they felt they’d hit a glass ceiling in their working lives, even though they hadn’t previously believed there was such a thing any more. I’ve been having more and more of these conversations recently. They tend to happen in whispers or low voices in the corner of a room filled with men. The tone is of disappointment rather than anger. Often one of the women will say something like “It’s just about confidence. If only we could bottle the confidence they have and borrow it”. I’m not about to burn my bra. If I did that, innocent small creatures I passed in the street could be cruelly crushed. We may just need to get some new imaginary hammers though. Not the ones in the stand up sets of men who talk bit too enthusiastically about murdering women. But ones to smash through those imaginary glass ceilings.


Saw this today from the Guardian’s Tanya Gold- more detail on the same issue at the Edinburgh Fringe


Gold medal for audiences

Column for Newcastle’s Journal newspaper-published Friday 10th August

I am starting to get worried now. What if my newfound interest in sport carries on after the Olympics? What if I become one of those people who can’t attend weddings without nipping out to check the score? What if I want to buy a nose clip to go swimming in and am able to answer something on “A Question of Sport?”. I know it’s not just me. A month ago would not have found me and the nice lady doing my nails chatting animatedly about the best way to avoid a disqualification in track cycling. The optimism of the Olympic Opening Ceremony hasn’t worn off either. It’s got even worse during my week at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Everything seems bathed in a rosy glow. Instead of seeing the crowds as “Those pesky people blocking the path”, I saw them as “Those wondrous folk who are open to new cultural experiences”.

Lots of them are at the shows Northern Stage are curating at St Stephen’s centre in the New Town under the “Made in the North of England” banner. It really is bathed in a rosy glow, because they’ve transformed this old church into a cosy, welcoming, contemporary space with a cafe where my pot of tea was served in actual vintage china. Whilst it may be entertaining to step into a fringe venue and know you can see anything from a man swallowing his own testicles while singing the Marseillaise to an elf performing all of Shakespeare’s plays in Mandarin Chinese, it’s also satisfying to step into a fringe venue and know there’s a handpicked mixture of shows that won’t be rubbish.That’s another disturbing thing though. I didn’t used to think I liked theatre either. It was too full of actors acting and constructing pauses more overplayed than Chris Tarrant’s on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire”. But Northern Stage produce fantastic conventional plays and also the increasingly popular theatre in which audiences get to actively participate. Like The Suggestibles’ Gary Kitching’s one man show about a man and his ventriloquists dummy which depends partly on audience suggestions, and Newcastle based Unfolding Theatre’s show about the humour and pathos of sport, where you might get to play darts among other things.

Then there are plenty of North East acts at The Stand comedy club, and hopefully more coming through in future years thanks to their Newcastle outpost. The likes of Gavin Webster, Tony Jameson, John Scott, and Lee Fenwick whose “Geoff the Entertainer” show I saw and is a brilliant piece of character comedy and pathos which also blurs the boundaries between theatre and comedy and gets the audience involved.

Former North East Arts Council boss Mark Robinson wrote in his blog this week about the way lottery funding transformed sports in this country and wonders if similar shouldn’t happen for the arts. Proper investment’s contributed to the massive leap from the one gold medal we won in Atlanta to the haul we’ve netted so far this time. What if artists also benefitted from the type of long term investment that would enable them to dedicate their lives to becoming better at what they do? I suppose one problem is that measurement is not as straightforward. Paula Radcliffe can prove she spent the money wisely because she clocked up two hundred miles a week and wore all her limbs away. A writer might be able to show you two hundred used tea bags and a slightly hurty thumb. In very different ways, however, organisations like Northern Stage and The Stand are making that investment in talent by helping bear the costs of them having the massive showcase that the fringe provides.

The next bit of the medal winning equation is the element that’s proved so helpful in the Olympics- a supportive audience cheering the home team on. Not everyone can become a medal winning athlete but we could all play the part in the glorious Utopian theatre that’s been the Olympics by being a brilliant audience for other live events and thereby invest in the next generation of talent. Never been to theatre or live stand up comedy by someone not on the telly? I bet a month ago you didn’t have a view on the best way to dismount a pommel horse or win an omnium. For the cost of a cinema ticket, you could help Northern talent go for gold and feel better about the world into the bargain.

Olympic Splits



“It’s the real Queen!” was also the moment that got me. Before that, I’d Tweeted that the Olympics Opening Ceremony looked like a set up for “It’s a Knockout”. I was expecting Stuart Hall to start doing the announcements and I wasn’t quite convinced by Kenneth Branagh being Kenneth Branagh. I thought the five gold rings that had been forged should turn into massive gold coins that clanged to the ground to represent the credit crunch. It’s ironic that it was the Queen joining in that turned the tide. Her Jubilee celebrations had been a reminder that the North is marginalised in any national public representations of the country. But then, suddenly, in Northerner Danny Boyle’s vision- here we were. From the Jarrow Marchers to Rowan Atkinson and the Arctic Monkeys to the smelting of Thomas Heatherwick’s cauldron. By the end of the ceremony I felt a rush of euphoria and optimism I hadn’t felt since the Tories started sweeping things away.  It reminded me of how I once interviewed Danny Boyle in the Malmaison when I used to work for Metro Radio. He’d come to Newcastle to promote the film “The Beach” and spoke so passionately about writing about things that inspired you that I said I was going to write a screenplay about the North East. He said “Go for it!”. I never did, but that surge of excitement was part of what led me to give up being a radio journalist and become a writer and it was a surge of excitement I felt again on watching his fun, exuberant, thoughtful show that reflected back a picture of Britain that I, and lots of other people recognised for once. However, when I found myself saying of the GB eventing team that it was nice to see some athletes who you might meet in Tesco’s, I realised that I might be letting the Olympics euphoria that had been smuggled in by the opening ceremony, turn my brain as mushy as a festival field. My husband expostulated “What Tesco’s do you shop in?!”. I’d meant it was nice to see older women and a bloke, all competing together. But this is the team containing Zara Philips, who seems lovely and dedicated and talented but-let’s face it- had she grown up in Walker instead of Windsor, would be lucky to be riding the merry go round at the Hoppings, never mind a two million quid horse. I realised I’d been seduced. It’s nice to see glowing, committed young people doing well and being told that their Gold medals are “For you”. It’s nice to see Clare Balding interviewing ecstatic parents and crying people in tracksuits and to be temporarily interested in vaulting and archery. But, in reality, the elitism represented by the Olympics seems to come too much at the expense of grassroots sport, grassroots culture and basic social fairness. Having said that- Danny Boyle’s vision did point to a massive clue about how popular culture still has the power to change things, to harness energy and to give people an escape, temporary or permanent from the restrictions of late failing Capitalism. Where to look for it in the North East then? Easy, the Split Festival in Sunderland in September. The vision of the Futureheads and co comes from real musicians saying real things and being supported by the place they come from and giving back to it. They aim to be the greenest festival in Europe, to be family-friendly, to have fantastic quality and value food and drink- and of course some of the best music locally, nationally and internationally. I know that sounds like an advert. I didn’t mean it to, I have no connection to the festival, but just a renewed, optimistic sense that it’s that spirit that will give the North East’s young people something to be galvanised by and hopeful about. Something to aim for that won’t require going out and buying a two million quid horse. As the great Jarvis Cocker said; “Is this the way the future’s meant to feel, or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?”. Maybe that’s up to us. 



I’m with the Banned


Corporate sponsors only,

as far as the eye can see,

makes me crave a Burger King,

more than a Maccy D.

Telling me I can’t do something

trips a wire in my psyche,

so I’d want to strip off my Adidas

and start putting on the Nike.

It’s a good job I’m not an athlete,

my face on official Olympic mugs,

or I’d probably flip and neck a load 

of banned illegal drugs.