My wife and I have been together for ten years now, which isn’t that impressive when you consider it’s two years less than the Germans stuck with Hitler. Still, that was their third reich and this is only our first marriage, so I’m cautiously optimistic. Today was actually the day of our ten-year anniversary, and as I keep telling her she doesn’t look a day older than she did this morning.
When I woke up she was making me breakfast in bed – eggs, beans, toast, the works.
“Darling, wouldn’t it be easier to make it in the kitchen?” I asked. “I’m not sure how comfortable I feel with you balancing a camp stove on the pillow.”
“Nonsense,” she said, julienning a tomato on our bedside table. “Now sit up, I need you to hold the microwave.”
It’s these small gestures of affection that are most important to us, and we try to schedule three or four a week to remind ourselves that even though we’re older and more responsible we haven’t lost our sense of fun. We’re both very similar people and we really do speak the same language, which is wonderful because otherwise it would be hard to watch the same television programmes without subtitles.
Do I remember Hitler? What a question, of course I remember Hitler. Such lovely blue eyes he had, just rolling around in his desk drawer like gobstoppers. He was the sweetest man and such a good tipper. He once tipped Hermann Goering all the way over with just one push. Terrible shame about his one testicle. It was a very sensitive subject for him back then, and though he didn’t like people pressing him on it, what man does?
So there I was, just minding my own business on the tube,* when I saw the below,
* That’s a lie – I was reading through the Evening Standard, which as actions go is probably as close to minding other people’s business as it is legally acceptable to get. I was on the tube though.
which, as some of you may recall, is one of a series of adverts that has bugged me in the past. This time, however, everything suddenly became clear.
You see, that’s what makes them so unexpected. Of course. It all makes sense now. Why didn’t they just say that in the first place, instead of wasting our time with this family of piggy banks they were thinking of getting us and which now, quite frankly, seem oddly tempting.
One of the perks of travelling on the Underground – assuming that body odour and awkward eye contact just don’t do it for you – is the range of advertising on display. Shiny new mobile phone contracts, exotic travel destinations and distinctly creepy dating websites all fight for your attention, each desperate to land the knock-out killer punchline. This literary arms race has led to the development of increasingly advanced wordplay technology, as all sides continue to search for the most effective weapons of mass distraction.
Sometimes the results are amusing. Sometimes they are thought-provoking. And sometimes, more than anything else, they are just plain weird.
Take this one, for instance, spotted in its natural habitat of the Westbound Hammersmith Line.
Oh yes, because in this time of radical economic austerity, the last thing we want is another one of those stable, predictable, normal banks. Look how they fouled things up over the past few years. No, what we need now is edginess. An ounce of devil-may-care mixed with half-a-gram of zany unpredictability. Did I just mix my units? Weren’t expecting that, were you? Welcome to first direct, the bank where employees are encouraged to adopt a casual, seat-of-the-pants, improvised approach to your money. You want a bank loan this week? Sure, have it. And repay it in a week. A month. Two months. Tomorrow. It’s overdue. Is your rate of interest too low? We’ll double it. Now we’ll triple it. Ok, now you pay us. Oh, what are we like. Do you know what we’re like? We’re like an octopus. No, we’re like an ibex. Ooh, ooh, I’ve got one – we’re like a platypus. Yeah? Because we’re totally unexpected. Yeah. And something to do with bills. Go Team Platypus!
Random (and, admittedly, unexpected) as that poster was, at the very least it made sense. This one, lurking in the undergrowth further along the same corridor, does not.
Which one beatboxing? I wasn’t told to imagine a bird beatboxing. I was told to imagine birds chirping – an odd request but one with which I have done my level best to comply. And now, after all my imaginative brain space has been used up on creating an ensemble of traditionally musical avifauna, you introduce this beatboxing character to the mix. That isn’t just unexpected, it’s rude. And also, quite frankly, nonsensical.
If first direct want to be truly unexpected, here are some suggestions for alternative slogans.
Thank you for your time
So here’s a thing – I’ve just discovered my new favourite verse form. It’s called the double dactyl, and I was thrown under the wheels of this particular poetical omnibus while following the tracks of noted Clerihovian Sam Wong. There are rules galore, but as with most things apart from keyhole surgery and flower arranging it is easiest to learn by example.
There are some beautiful such examples online – here is a selection of my favourites:
Loch Ness’s residents
Have, in a beautifully
(A. H. Templeton)
Wrote with intelligence,
Passion and verve –
Got him denounced as a
(Hardeep Q. Bompast)
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Zealously studied the
Light Brigade’s Charge,
But never stopped to gain
With his own agent’s,
Which proved to be large.
(Cyrus Zangwill and Mordecai Oleogaster)
Tried to tell particles
How to behave
Not having realised
Means every particle’s
Also a wave.
I know a scientist
Who thinks that infra red’s
Quite infra dig;
One day he said to me
“This is the decade that
Gonna be big.”
(Elizabeth Termagant [née Brunswick])
Tenzing and Hillary
Once had a fight that went
On for a week,
Before concluding that,
What they had found was the
Wrong type of pique.
(Norman Tebbit and the Broadway cast of Rent)
Kiri Te Kanawa
Once to Sarkozy was
Heard to exclaim:
I’m from New Zealand, Sir”
“Qui?” said the Frenchman and
“Oui” said the Dame.
(Eric Morecambe and Nathan the Wise)
Oscar B. Templeton
Died doing what he loved
Most – shall we say –
Passing the time, ahem,
With the exhaust pipe of
(Edward Saïd with thanks to Nora Ephron)
Keeps getting scripts to his
Sent by a musically
Literate bevy of
Inkers no less.
Oy gevalt, Oy gevalt,
Jesus of Nazareth
Died on the cross so our
Souls wouldn’t die:
Now every Easter this
Life is remembered with
Chocolate – but why?
(St Augustine of Hippo and St Anthony of Rhino)
March 22nd 2013
Sadly, more to follow…
We are all of us, I think, familiar with the image of the benevolently patronising uncle. I know I am, having filled the role to glowing acclaim in three separate productions of nieces and two moving renditions of nephews.
In the early days of the run, I should say, the audience was not particularly difficult to please. The material was new and provocative, the comic routines still fresh and entertaining. A brief routine structured around the waggling of an eyebrow was wont to set the children’s table at a roar. The simultaneous waggling of both was enough to precipitate an impromptu comfort break.
But over time, as is the way in this business, the material grew stale and the audience’s attention began to wander. And so, in an attempt to reignite something of the old flame, I would feign an interest in whatever visually appealing bauble was closest to hand. All too often, I would languidly dangle some captivating though pointless trinket in front of their eyes, supposing my bored expression would be blurred and out of focus behind the object of their desires.
But there came, in turn, for each of my five nephlings, an age at which their gaze looked beyond the watch or mobile telephone or extension lead dangling between our faces, and their eyes visibly uncrossed in order to look more sternly at my true expression. And a cloud of disapproval began to spread across their faces like a spoonful of cocoa in milk, outraged that I should be putting on a performance for their benefit. That what had been the undisrupted focus of their interest was for me but a trifling plaything with which I deceitfully and maliciously sought to distract and entertain them.
I do not try this any more. The wails of a young audience are apt to induce sympathetic resonance on even the toughest of heartstrings. But my maturity as a performer has also taken place because I have learned what it is like to be on the other side of the extension lead. I have myself learned how it feels to see, in the fuzzy hinterland behind the immediate object of my attention, expressions of patronising malice seeking to entertain and distract me only long enough as serves its purpose.
And it is not a pleasant realisation. In fact, if there is one lesson I could give my five nephews and nieces – assuming they will ever look me in the eye again – it would be to teach them to beware. To teach them that a quick glance past the colonnaded facade is often enough to spot the mould stains on the inner landing and the wet rodent footprints on the kitchen countertops.
The truth of this was driven home to me last week when a friend introduced me to the work of the English dramatist Joe Orton. “What the Butler Saw”, a comedy now running at London’s Vaudeville theatre, is a play which held a mirror up to the 1960s society in which it was written. Before breaking the mirror over its knee and stabbing 1960s society in the eye with a shard.
But the opening minutes give no sign of this underlying brutality. The first act begins at a brisk and fluid pace, bristling with the sort of epigram that led to Joe Orton being called “the Oscar Wilde of welfare state gentility.” This feels like the traditional English farces of old – all vicars, knickers and snickers – with overly strained visual gags and ludicrous plot contrivances to match. The appreciative crowd goes into the interval expecting no more than a highly conventional, if slightly dated, example of this British theatrical form. The bauble has proven alluring enough to entirely overwhelm our depth of field.
But it is in the second act that the zoom lens of our concentration slowly begins to readjust its focus. The laughter which bursts from our lungs at the sight of Omid Djalili wildly brandishing a revolver collapses in our throats as we see his blood-stained costars, and needs to be defibrillated in our mouths as the situation becomes ever more horrifyingly entangled. Without relenting for a second in pace or freneticism, farce has become tragedy. This is Kafka as adapted for the stage by Mel Brooks.
And then we come to the dénouement. A conclusion which involves not so much a mere Deus Ex Machina as a veritable mechanised Pantheon. Every convention normally employed by farce to achieve an aesthetically satisfying resolution is remorselessly lampooned. The genre itself, which for two hours or more has held us in a state of willing disbelief, is now being pulled out from under our feet. The facade has crumbled and the concealed graffiti is beginning to peek through the cracks.
And the joke is on us. For investing emotion in the characters; for expecting rationality from Art; for seeking to erect a dividing line between farce and tragedy. The bauble has been snatched away and the sneering, impatient face of Joe Orton is now only too plain to see. How foolish of us to suppose that the happy endings we graft on to the end of our theatrical farces should be any less contrived than our daily attempts to create order out of chaos.
Joe Orton was not a happy man, and this is by no means a happy play. The very finality of its concluding scene is a reflection on the artificiality of such decisive endings. Discrete passages of life are not marked by the abrupt descending of a curtain, and any work of art which attempts to show otherwise is perpetuating an irresistible collective delusion.
What The Butler Saw, in 100 odd minutes of dialogue and 88 very odd pages of text, shows us the true futility attendant on the attempt to lead a structured life. Chaos is inevitable, and the attempts we make to master it are so ludicrous as to be simultaneously farcical and tragic. It is not an easy play to digest, but at the same time it is all too easy to swallow.
And while I would highly recommend it to any of my readers, don’t think I’ll be taking any of my nephlings any time soon.