One of the most brilliant aspects to touring a stand-up show is you get to realise how small Britain is. And yet it didn’t used to be this size. When I was a kid, we’d go on holiday to Ilfracombe, and the preparations for the journey would take a month. For several evenings the table would be covered with maps as my dad planned the route, so that anyone looking in through the window would have assumed our reason for going to North Devon was to impose a military occupation of the place. My mum would contact a variety of people on the issue of the most suitable transport cafe on the A3 at which to stop for breakfast. The day before the journey involved a frenzied routine of preparing the car, buying the right type of fizzy drink, consulting weather reports and exclaiming ‘There MAY be scattered showers in Dorset but they’re saying that won’t be until the evening so we should miss them so we’re lucky’, visiting the chemists for Phensics, Milk of Magnesia, plasters, travel sickness pills, and an assortment of ointments as if the map had suggested the quickest route was up the Amazon, making sandwiches in case we got hungry before we got to the transport cafe, alerting the neighbours to how we’d be leaving at twenty to six in the morning to avoid the traffic through London so they needn’t be alarmed at seeing someone set off at such an unusual and potentially upsetting time, checking for a ninth and final time we’d cancelled the papers and milk, then getting to bed at seven to make sure we’d be up on time. The next morning we’d check everything four more times, then as we pulled away the neighbours would wave in their dressing gowns and my mum would clap her hands and exclaim “Right – we’re OFF”, with the same mix of achievement and anxiety I imagine General Sherman conveyed when he set off with his army to attack South Carolina.
Now, if I had a show in North Devon I’d spend twenty minutes choosing some CDs, and probably get back the same night to take the kids to school the next morning. So I try to retain at least some sense of wonder at the unique, the idiosyncratic, the personal quirks of each place I visit on a tour that propels me across the country.
This time I started in Kendal, a beautiful Lake District town where even the High Street smells of cow pats. There are still enough independently non-corporate human slightly tatty cafes, clothes shops, off licenses and toy stores to leave the ubiquitous forms of WH Smiths, Greggs the bakers, The Link and so on in a minority. And when I was there, as if to live up to a stereotype specially as they knew I was coming, a huge banner across the High Street announced the forthcoming mint festival. But a few yards from this banner, a pub called Dickie Doodles displayed an itinerary of forthcoming bands playing in its basement, the next one being ‘The Vicious Bastards’, with a picture of an unfeasibly angry skinhead with no shirt and a tatoo on his forehead thrashing a guitar and bellowing something with unrestrained venom. We can’t know what he was screaming but I doubt it was “I’ll be exhibiting a mild and fruity mint cake at the festival which begins, don’t forget, on September 9th.”
The show was in a theatre converted from a brewery, and as it was a new show, afterwards I felt an overwhelming sense of relief, because no one had got up after twenty minutes and announced “I’m sorry Mark, but this is incoherent gibberish. As spokesman for the audience, I’m afraid we’ve all decided to pop up to Dickie Doodles. If we’re quick we should catch The Strangled Sheep, who last year were support band for The Vicious Bastards.”
I may have been helped by the local paper. Usually it seems a bit too easy to read out the trivial parochial headlines from the regional papers. The last time I did this, I think, was in High Wycombe on the week the Queen Mother died, and their paper boasted “The Queen Mother was known as a fan of Buckinghamshire. She visited Aylesbury in 1948, and came again in 1997.”
But as I was walking onto the stage for this first show of the tour, I saw the front page headline on a paper discarded by the lad doing the sound, which proclaimed “PHOTO TAKEN OF BIG CAT.”
What must have gone on in that editorial meeting?
“Has ANYTHING happened here this week?”
“Someone I know took a photo of a cat.”
“Hmm, not bad – but it needs an angle.”
“Well it’s quite a BIG cat.”
“Is it? Now THAT’S a story. Get every reporter on the case – I want interviews with relatives of whoever took the photo, a statement from the cat’s owner defending animal privacy, a comment from a local vet on what causes some cats to be a bit bigger than others – this baby could end up as the lead item on Newsnight.”
Shrewsbury can appear a bit posh, with its vast public school that boasts of Michael Heseltine being amongst its ex-pupils. Right next to the school was the football ground, which made me wonder whether the local supporters were the only fans in the country to chant in Latin: “You’re Turdius and you know you are,” that sort of thing. But even lowly Shrewsbury’s ground has been knocked down, to be replaced with an out-of-town soulless mini-stadium that’s incorporated into a sterile retail park. Soon local darts teams will be told they’ll no longer have their matches in the public bar of the pub, as they’ve been relocated to the Unilever Arena, five miles away in a car park behind PC World, and when not used for darts, the board is somehow converted into a Nando’s.
The last time I was there, I was put up in The Prince Rupert, a hotel named after the commander of Royalist forces in the English Civil War. I think that for a moment I pondered the possibility of refusing to stay there out of Republican principle. But they had a full-size snooker table.
At some point during the second half of the show it occurred to me that it was somewhere near Shrewsbury where that millionaire went berserk on his farm a couple of weeks earlier. There was nothing I could do about it – the words just came bounding out with no forethought – “Hey, the class struggle’s easy to fight round this way isn’t it? You don’t have to do a thing and the rich just kill each other.” I think I achieved a local record for the greatest ever collective gasp in the town. But they seemed to get over it quite quickly.
Lovely venue, the Wedgwood Rooms. It’s more suited to music than comedy, with its informal seats, its mixing-desk area in the middle, its tarnished black walls covered in posters for past gigs and its slightly sticky student-unionish floor. Then on the way home I was caught by a speed camera for doing forty-three miles per hour in an area with a thirty miles per hour limit. Now THAT’S rock and roll.