Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Why I went to Disneyland Paris for my 50th birthday

It was so hard to think of my 50th birthday as a celebration. It felt like the end of a life. The girl who did all those things is gone, leaving behind a middle aged woman who walks with a limp and works part time at a local library. It's hard to be me when the things that I used to define me have faded after 50 years in the light. So still trying to learn what might be appropriate for this stranger, this 50-year-old, I had to decide how to mark her arrival.

A late December birthday scatters friends and drastically thins out big music events and festivals. And I wanted something I'd never done before. Something exciting, exotic, way out of my cultural comfort zone. Something fun.

The longsuffering Lovely Paul arrived at Disneyland Paris looking like a man who had accidentally booked a holiday to a theme park called World of Spiders. He was quickly cheered up by the hotel (rather outdated decor, but nice and clean, the service was excellent and the lobby smelled lovely). I immediately felt, not like a grown-up on a kid's holiday, but like a guest. In fact all through our time there, I never felt out of place, awkward, or as if I needed to have children to validate my presence, in a welcome change from non-Disney land.

My castle.
The park itself is laid out to create maximum awe. Walking up Main Street, I caught my first glimpse of Aurora's castle, lit up and glittering for Christmas. I realised I was really here, the magic was real, and it was (at least partly) for me, and I burst into tears. The next day, overlooking Main Street during lunch at Walt's, I was able to watch a more or less continuous stream of other visitors reach the same point, stop, and shuffle off sniffling. Once you reach the castle balcony, you can see the whole park, and imagine you are Princess of the entire realm, but at ground level, the visitor is constantly turning to see something new, exploring, and coming upon surprises. One minute you may be lost in a cave, the next following a trail of animal prints round a corner to find yourself face to face with Baloo and King Louie. On a Disney property, your disbelief is suspended, and you are given permission to be delighted. As a rational adult, I know that the dragon under the castle is animatronic, but another, older part of my brain tells me that the dragon is real, and that I need to jump smartly out of the way when she blasts smoke at me.

For our first night, I had, with some trepidation, planned dinner at Inventions, a buffet featuring roaming Disney characters. The idea was to get us immersed in the magic as quickly as possible, like jumping into a cold pool of mice. I was half expecting one of us to take badly to being "bothered" when eating dinner, and feared the evening may end in being escorted from the building for threatening Donald Duck with a jug of orange sauce. In fact, the characters are extremely good at judging when they will be welcome, and do everything they can to enhance the meal rather than distracting from it. Special mention to a brilliantly sarcastic Pluto, who, on being informed that Paul had mixed him up with Goofy, carefully showed him the name tag on his collar.

Magic booze.

The food, for what it's worth, was pretty good - it suffered a little from the apparent belief that vegetarians don't eat protein of any kind, but then it's France; French chefs in general seem to cling to the old-fashioned belief that vegetarians are people who are not interested in food. The flagship California Grill was offering fish as its "vegetarian" main course, which caused us to cancel our reservation altogether.  That said, although I had some rather dull meals at Disneyland Paris (Walt's, I am looking at you with your 50 euros for mushroom ravioli in cream and a plain undressed salad) there was always plenty of fresh fruit and veg on offer, our meal plan came with vouchers for a free midafternoon hot drink with fruit or cake, and every restaurant was exquisitely themed and an attraction in itself. There is certainly no need to live on fast food, as many theme park visitors seem to expect. There was no tea or coffee maker in our hotel room, but there was a nice bar downstairs with insane light-up cocktails and substantial bar snacks, and Disney Village just across the road with bars, restaurants, and a Starbucks.

Theming in a Frontierland restaurant

I had thought that four nights and five days (the result of my legendary enthusiasm for a special offer) might be a bit much. I had thought that by day two we would have been on all the rides, seen all the shows and met all the characters. I had thought we might have a day in Paris as respite from all the relentless magic. Fast-forward to day 3, and we're already planning a second trip. That fourth ride on Phantom Manor was just not enough. We never did manage to go on everything (to be fair, I was ill and felt Tower of Terror or Crush's Coaster might have been just asking for trouble), and in any case, many rides are due to be refurbished for the 25th anniversary in 2017 and we'd like to see the difference.

I get it now. I get why adults come here, and come back again and again. It's that part of your brain that makes you jump out of the way of the dragon. In the same way that music and stories are necessary, maybe so are human-sized mice and floating through pirate battles and being turned upside down at high speed while listening to Aerosmith. Those who know me know that I was brought up to believe that I didn't matter, that I couldn't do anything and the dreams are for other people. The very antithesis of the Disney way, which tells us that anyone, regardless of aptitude or training, is special and important enough to do anything if they just dream hard enough. Of course, that gets you your dinner cooked by a rat, but it was a good dinner, so maybe it's Disney who are right here.

The Ratatouille ride and Bistrot Chez Remy area

Monday, 27 April 2015

Letter from the Border

Like everyone who's ever visited Nepal, I've found it hard to process the terrible news of the death and damage caused by the earthquake of April 25th. Recently, I was working on an account of my trip there in 1992, but put it aside because my real-life haplessness and ridiculousness seemed to rather stretch the reader's credulity. If you manage to enjoy the story in spite of the idiot protagonist, please donate whatever you can to Oxfam's Nepal Earthquake Campaign or DEC or your own preferred charity.

Letter From The Border

Dear all
I’m fine and there’s absolutely definitely nothing to worry about, but I’ve just had typhoid. Do not panic, it’s more or less gone now, I can eat and drink and walk almost normally.  The Nepalese doctor said I got it in India, but the Indian pharmacist reckons I must have caught it in Nepal.  I don't care, I just don't intend to let this trip be ruined by a stupid bacterium in the first week. I am still feeling incredibly lucky, being able to go and see the world.  Mainly the world's toilets and hospitals so far, but there's still time.

We were up a mountain when I got ill, and there were no roads, or access for vehicles unless you count donkeys. After I’d spent a week in some unlucky family’s guest house, dragging myself between bed and the toilet, throwing up every sip of water I had, we realised I wasn’t going to just snap out of it. I didn’t have two thousand dollars for the emergency helicopter. Tracy asked some locals what to do - they asked for fifty dollars deposit and then, to my feeble horror, they started weaving a huge basket which would strap to their backs. The only way to get me to a doctor was for me to be carried down the mountain by Sherpas.  I know you are now worrying, please don’t.  The Sherpas will be fine, they were very strong and used to heavy loads, and almost certainly immune to typhoid.  

They had plenty of tea breaks and usually just put me down facing a wall somewhere. I did get a bed at one point, when we stopped overnight at someone’s guesthouse. This next bit may have been a hallucination, but I remember an endless parade of grannies all queuing up to try their home remedies on me. Real or not, I felt a bit guilty every time I sicked up the ginger tea they kept giving me.  They also seemed very keen to tie various lengths of coloured string round my middle, but that didn’t work either. I got the impression it might be a way of asking for divine intervention, and I expect the deities round there had more important things to concern them than my welfare. The people were doing their best for me, and I felt like I was letting them down by not getting better. Let's hope my Sherpas passed some of their earnings on to whichever of the old ladies did actually exist. Tracy was great, she shooed away lots of other tourists who wanted to take photos of me crying and throwing up. Honestly, that’s the Himalayas right there in front of you, in all their icy majesty. Why would you be pointing your camera at a vomiting backpacker?

When we finally arrived at a place with roads and a hospital, a nice young doctor told me that I was obviously English, my national football team was doing very poorly that year, and that I had typhoid. I noticed his stethoscope was inscribed with love and fond memories from everyone at Glasgow Medical School. As Nepal is basically the Scotland of the subcontinent, this makes perfect sense - a small mountainous country full of mysterious culture and warriors, who fear nothing but the local old ladies. The doctor assumed I was delirious and gave me some serious antibiotics. My body dutifully began to get better.  It didn’t even slow us down that much, really; me being ill. Our plan was always to go straight to Benares, so all I had to do was sit on a bus for a few days, even someone with typhoid can do that.

We had to change buses when we got back into India. It was exciting to be back there - India is so many things - but I was sorry to leave Nepal. It’s not just lentils and scenery, even if dhal bhat by a mountain lake is something that would take an infinite number of Heston Blumenthals to recreate properly. Nepal is full of interesting and kind people. Before I got ill, we’d celebrated Diwali with them in Kathmandu. Everywhere was covered in candles and mandalas and flowers, and we started to understand what a festival of lights means when your home belongs to the dark in winter, when sometimes a distant star turns out to be a cooking fire in the sky on the side of an impossible mountain. I told some schoolboys we met that in the west we’ve always had a winter festival of lights too. They said: ‘you are the same as us, then, big sister’, and I was proud.

 The border at Sunauli is just a desk at the side of the road with two policemen sitting there.  You can stand with one foot either side of the border and hop backwards and forwards over it, if you’re not just getting over typhoid and in a massive rush to get to a toilet. While the policeman who was awake was stamping our passports, I noticed that a Buddhist monk was trying to get my attention.  He was pointing at my backpack.  You remember before we left how long it took me to pack? The “Definitely” pile, the “just in case” pile, the “lucky” pile? I did so much crying and swearing trying to cram my whole life into something from the Milletts sale.  Well this monk was carrying nothing at all.  He mimed me staggering under the weight of all my stuff, then he did a twirl to show that all he had were his orange robes, then he pointed at me again and laughed and laughed and laughed. I thought at first he was telling me off, but he wasn’t. He was happy just to be him and to let me be me.  He was so delighted with his joke that I started laughing as well, and so did Tracy, and I think even the policeman did a little smile.

We got on our bus to Benares, and the monk waved us goodbye, still laughing.  I hope he's well. I hope our paths cross again one day.

Friday, 21 February 2014

But what do you do REALLY?

An actor, an author, a medical writer, a graphic designer and a film maker walk into a bar. OK, it’s not a bar.  That’s later.  For now, they walk into an unremarkable 1970s office block, stuffed with cubicles.  Each one has a screen, a headset, a phone unit, and a creased crib sheet, tattooed by a hundred bored biroes.  This is the market research call centre I worked in for six months in the nineties, and every single person who worked there was doing so to pay their way through training or see them through a fallow period in their real job - nearly all of them in the creative industries.  

It was a great place to work, there was always someone to have an interesting conversation with during breaks, always something new to learn from a colleague.  But the pay was low and the days went slowly, and as soon as I could, I went back to my usual job as an advertising copywriter.

I was in good company - so many great writers have worked in advertising agencies.  Don de Lillo, Salman Rushdie, even, somewhat alarmingly, William Burroughs at one time paid the bills by writing encouragements to buy more stuff.  It was soon obvious, though, that while I could combine advertising with the odd bit of freelance journalism, fiction was completely beyond my capabilities after a day of copywriting.  I could not manage more than one way of “making things up for a living” at a time.  It was as if I had a finite number of sentences, and by 5.30pm I’d exhausted them.

But what else can a writer do to earn a living if not write? Larkin was happy enough (as far as one could tell in his case) to remain a librarian.  Many writers teach, especially now a private income is rarely expected and government funding is rarely generous.  Rarer is the artist who, like William Letford the roofer/poet, does a manual job by day, transforming into actor/dancer/novelist when the factory whistle blows.

I now write stories, not sales pitches.  And I work part time in a supermarket.  When I’m at work, I’m submerged in all the everyday tragedies and unthinking heroisms of ordinary people’s lives, the customer request for “adult baby wipes” for a husband with dementia, the pride with which a colleague talks of his disabled daughters.  I come into contact with ignorance, kindness, prejudice, decency and straightforward stupidity to a degree I wouldn’t have imagined from my desk in an ad agency.

But, for me, the real benefit is that my tiny spark of writing creativity is no longer bludgeoned and sat upon by my need to use up every scrap of possibility at my day job.  I’m not saying that a lurid nylon uniform is the way to creative greatness.  But it might be less restrictive than you think.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Why are we Arguing?

For some reason, this subject has come up a lot in magazines and online discussions recently, and it always always turns into a nasty argument (look at the comments on this article for example - it's a bit one-sided to start with, but there are some really hurtful things being said by those who agree and disagree with it).  Each “side” seems to expect judgement and abuse from the other, and tries to get it in first.  All I can give is my own perspective, but given that I have been subject to aggressive and insensitive remarks about my childlessness, I have to assume that those with children sometimes, sadly, face similar unpleasantness from the childfree.

If you’re a reasonable person and don’t behave like this, you may not know what it’s like for 40+ women who don’t have children.  I have people telling me I’m selfish for not wanting children.  I hear that there is no point in me being on this earth if I am not going to reproduce.  I am told that I will never experience love if I don’t have a child.  I have NEVER felt  any pressure from my partner, friends or family to have children.  But the pressure from strangers, acquaintances and the media is immense.

At forty eight years old, I STILL have people telling me it’s “not too late”, that their aunt gave birth to a bouncing young cousin when she was fifty.  That’s nice.  But your aunt is (one presumes) a human being and so am I, and that means we are different.  

That’s the problem, I think.  I can’t speak for those with children, and the assumptions made about them - I’m sure there are many.  But many people I meet start by assuming I am a parent, based on my age and gender.  It’s irritating and insulting to me.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who have lost a child or tried desperately for one for most of their reproductive lives.  I can assure you the charity collector who greeted me on my own doorstep with “I bet the kids are driving you mad today” had the door firmly shut on her, and I sincerely hope that she thought twice about saying that to anyone else.  There wasn’t much I could do about the JobCentre advisors who delayed my claim by (without my knowledge) registering me as having dependents.  I had filled in the form correctly, but apparently my appearance and the law of averages overrode this.

I don’t know if this view of the childfree as oddities, anomalies has changed over time.  I’d like to think we’re assumed to be less tragic than we once were.  I have certainly felt the shift in the nation’s view of children since being a child myself in the 1970s, when children were expected to do what adults wanted.  Now it seems that an adult’s life is governed by his or her children.  Pity the generation that got the worst of both worlds, never being the important one in the family!  I remember the shock I felt when I first heard children being asked their opinion on things, and the first time an adult apologised to me.

I believe you, today’s parents, when you say how rewarding and fulfilling parenting is, how it’s the best thing you’ve ever done and how much it’s taught you.  But quite honestly, when I hear that, it sounds exactly the same as someone telling me how great it is to be a multi-millionaire.  I’m really happy for you and I admire you enormously for getting there, but I don't have any reasonable way of putting myself in the same position.

I wanted a family, once.  I wanted to make up for what I never had growing up.  Then I learned how often neglected and abused children repeat these mistakes with the next generation.  I learned how likely it was that any children would inherit my long-term illness.  And, even if I’d felt I had the personal strength to overcome these issues, I didn’t meet my partner till I was 40.  I call myself child-free by choice, but we don’t all have the same choices.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for parents.  I agree it is the hardest job in the world.  Those who are my friends know (I hope) that I find their children fascinating, engaging and adorable people, despite my not being terribly interested in babies per se.  Parents who I don’t know personally, I hope that you know I’m not judging you for your choices.  And in turn, I hope that you won’t judge me for mine.

Dead Centre

I know very well how ridiculous this sounds, but:

So it was Lovely Paul’s birthday, and being humble as well as lovely, he decided that after a day out at the Birmingham Sea Life Centre peering at otters, all he wanted was dinner at Pizza Express.  Seemed worth coming back to Coventry for, so we could just hop in a taxi home straight after dinner.  We didn’t bother with a reservation because a) who makes reservations at Pizza Express? and b) what Pizza Express is booked out at 7pm on a Friday?

As it turns out, we now know the answer to the second of these questions.  It’s the kind of Pizza Express based in a city centre with not much else in it.  Our other options were: The excellent Turmeric Gold on Spon Street (so excellent we go there all the time and fancied something different).  b) the Blue Bar and Bistro (nearby, but small and we, perhaps unfairly, assumed it would also be booked up) c) Browns (usually too busy with student drinkers on a Friday night to relax in over dinner), and a couple of places that we discounted because their “vegetarian option” was a dish of flabby pasta that I could do better at home.

That’s about half a dozen restaurants, including a couple of bars/chains that aren’t really restaurants at all.  In one of the UK’s biggest city centres.  No wonder Pizza Express is so bloody popular.

And here’s the other thing.  We would have had quite a walk to get to most of those other places.  From one edge of the city centre to another.  While some of the suburbs have busy little hubs of bars and restaurants, Coventry City Centre itself is desolate after dark.  The shopping areas turn grim and forbidding, with the odd tiny beacon of enjoyment calling from across the deserted precincts.  The nice places to go are let down by the expanses between them.

I have established myself with the council as the kind of beady-eyed busybody who likes filling in surveys, and every now and then they ask for suggestions about the city centre.  I usually tell them that part of the problem is that all the shops are shut by 5.30pm, making vast swathes of the place look post-apocalyptic.  And there is no one area where restaurants and bars are concentrated.  The square where the BBC is had a good try, but I think the problem there is it’s inaccessible by car - everything but Nandos seems to have shut down now.  There is a nice area by the theatre which seems like it should have a choice of establishments, but all it contains is a Bella Italia.  

I can’t help comparing Coventry to Leicester, a city centre which also suffered in the war (though it wasn’t as comprehensively obliterated), but which is bustling with independent shops, cafes and restaurants.  Despite having a broadly similar immigration pattern to Coventry, Leicester is famous for its curries, while Coventry boasts just one or two good Indian restaurants.  (incidentally, Coventry possesses a vastly impressive guildhall, but you have to wait for the annual Heritage Open Day to see it.  Leicester’s, interesting though smaller, less well preserved, and less soaked in history, is open all year round.)  What’s going on here?  I’m not a town planner, I can’t put it right.  But when they rebuilt this city, the architects intended it to be an enjoyable place to be, full of life and business and entertainment.  The nature of city centres all over the country, even the world, is changing rapidly.  I hope councils and governments and businesses see this as an opportunity for ideas, not just for decay.

Maybe if we lived just out of the city, in Earlsdon, or the developing Far Gosford Street area, Paul would have had a birthday dinner out.  As it was, we went home and ordered a takeaway.  It was excellent.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Just for a change, I'm going to like something...

Obviously you are at complete liberty to hold your own personal tastes and views.  I am not going to shout at you for detesting raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens or similar.  However, plenty of people seem to believe that their tastes are somehow superior tastes to those of others.  I learned this week that apparently clever people shouldn't like reality tv. I joined in a conversation about Celebrity Big Brother, and was told "I expected better of you", by someone who knows I have two degrees and was presumably imagining I spend my evenings memorising pi and gazing at my Simon Schama pinups.  

Others have assumed I watch in some kind of "ironic" way, perhaps picturing some sort of post-modern leisure movement of doing things one doesn't enjoy, then moaning about them, for the amusement of one's online acquaintances.  Well guess what, I know full well that Celebrity Big Brother contains neither anyone much celebrated nor any Orwell references, and I still like it.  It's funny ("Jedward are running a bubble bath into which they have emptied a whole bottle of washing up liquid" remaining one of my all-time favourite commentaries).  It makes you think (would anyone with that upbringing have ended up like Lauren Harries, or is she just a natural eccentric who, lacking friends, sees the public as substitutes?).  It gives you an insight into the "celebrity" world (Mark Owen's genuine overwhelmed tears at winning, while mum-aged Take That fans wait outside with a banner saying "we never forgot").  It gives our own prejudices a workover (at the height of the Jade Goody/Shilpa Shetty controversy, a nation somehow found itself looking to Jermaine Jackson and H from Steps as the voice of reason).

Moreover, along with the "civilian" Big Brother, it tells us something important.  It takes people we would not usually get to know in the normal course of life, and tells us something about what they are like.  Generally, they are not like us.  And that's why I like them, and it.  It's a window (albeit a tinted and distorted one) into the lives and minds of people I don't know and don't have much in common with.

X Factor is harder to defend because the music is, almost uniformly, terrible, and the voting predictable, but it's an interesting and fun way to find out what constitutes popular music these days - certainly more fun than listening to Radio 1 (I say this as a person whose listening habits tend firmly towards the direction of unpopular music).  My favourite last year was Jahmene Douglas, a man whose singing was the audio equivalent of a Per Una top* - really nice, but disfigured with pointless frills and embroidery.  I can't say I'll be buying, or even knowingly listening to, his album, but I enjoyed watching his progression through the show, and it was fun to talk about him  - and intriguingly creepy Chris Maloney and meta-celebrity Rylan Clarke - with my colleagues.  I work in a supermarket, and while conversations about literature, history and science are as regular as those about who isn't really "off sick" and who's going for the management job, it feels good to have an interest in common with co-workers who prefer to chat about Saturday night television (it's also useful to steer the conversation into safer waters when I fear someone might be about to launch into praise for Boris Johnson or similar).  

I am barely restraining my impulse to say that the disdain for reality shows and the people who watch them is simply snobbery.  I think that would be unfair of me - it's not as unpleasant as that, it's more a need to compartmentalise people and things so we can process them more easily - "I'm the sort of person who likes X Factor" "I'm the sort of person who votes in X Factor"  "I'm the sort of person who auditions for X Factor" "I'm the sort of person who pops up every fifth or sixth comment after an article on X Factor to ask why the journalist is covering this crap".

So like what you like, and I'll like what I like.  Just don't try and interfere with other people's preferences, or you will sound as delusional and self-obsessed as someone you've never heard of (but was once married to someone you have) having an argument about sausages with a weatherman.

*or, indeed, four tops

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

What we did on our Holidays

98% of the people I work with have never heard of the Edinburgh festival, much less the Fringe.  The remaining 2% have heard of the Edinburgh Festival, but think it is formed entirely of kilted soldiers playing bagpipes at the Queen.  Most of my colleagues have never been to Scotland, and some have the same attitude as the staff member at Dalston Jobcentre, who once berated me for "going on holiday to"* what he seemed to believe was a mythical country.  It is a mystery, then, why most of the population of the world is clogging the Royal Mile  when we arrive.  They've never heard of the Fringe, but they know a 2-for-1 ticket offer when they see it.

Our Travelodge doesn't have a working lift, but does offer 24-hour porridge service (just-add-boiling-water stuff in pots; like wallpaper paste but without the appetite appeal).  It is magnificently cheap and outrageously central though, and much better than any of the performers get, if one goes by each year's many hollow-eyed routines about vermin and the vomit of strangers.

We didn't veer off into uncharted territory much this year.  Even acts we'd never seen before (specifically Robin Ince and John Lloyd) were chosen because of our absolute certainty we'd get good comedy value with something genuinely new and interesting to think about thrown in.

Arthur Smith was even doing a sequel to a show I'd already seen.  It could have been repetitive, but the subject matter (loosely connected by the themes of personality and aging) and the framework (the songs of Leonard Cohen) in the hands of someone like Smith could never really have been boring.  Reliably unreliable, Smith is able to engage conversationally with an audience to the extent that we think we're listening to a friend - till he tips us into a place we weren't expecting and laughs at our confusion.  Never maliciously, though, and always entertaining, whether serenading us, sharing with us or surprising us.  The Lovely Paul didn't enjoy it as much as I, but then he doesn't really care for Leonard Cohen, does he?  Knowing the songs does enhance the show nicely.  And as a little bonus, with a trilby garnish, Arthur Smith not only sings but also spookily resembles Leonard Cohen.

Susan Calman is funny whatever she does, and though her current show is a work in progress, it's a show to relax into, knowing you're in safe hands.  I was briefly dubious when she whipped out a guitar, but at least one of her songs was a highlight and a delight - outlining the differences and worrying similarities between her Radio 4 fans and those who see her at late-night club gigs.  Observations about relationships can be tiresome in the wrong hands, but Calman truly makes me giggle and cringe as I recognise myself and the other half in her caricatures.  Whether that's because discussing a same-sex partner frees her from the creaky "differences between men and women" format or it's simply down to skill is not terribly relevant.  The Venn diagram of "people who are great" and "people who refer to themselves as their cats' parents" contains just one person at its intersection, and it is Susan Calman.

Jon Bennett is the "Pretending Things are a Cock" guy, this year doing a show called "My Dad's Deaths".  Last year's was a powerpoint presentation about pretend cocks, coming of age and the search for self.  This year's is a powerpoint presentation about the many eccentricities of his father, coming of age, and the search for self.  We fell in love with him last year because he is simply extremely likeable, as well as being an excellent storyteller. And the story is a great one, universal enough to be recognised (all dads can be pompous, ubiquitious and strangely vulnerable), odd enough to be worth telling (very few dads shout words describing their emotions in lieu of swearing, or manhandle pregnant wives onto roofs).  Because of Bennett's empathy and likeability, this really does feel like an hour in the pub with a favourite friend (I will even let him off the unnecessary and rather shoehorned-in audience participation bit, purely because of the delightful costume).

Normally, I avoid improvisational comedy.  If I am paying money for something, I want it to be properly thought out, professionally written, and rehearsed.  Having been to Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza's Set List (twice) I now have to take issue with myself over this prejudiced and thoughtless attitude.  The beauty of it - and what makes the difference - between this and other improv formats - is the nicely-crafted setlist of subjects created for each performer. "I  give weapons to blind children" "Masturbation Pride" "I covet moths".  Some, like Susan Calman, manage to bind these surprises into parts of their existing sets.  Others, like Tim Fitzhigham and Robin Ince, spin off into whole new worlds of humour.  The unsinkable Mitch Benn actually creates a new little song for each subject, people are so impressed they almost forget to laugh.  It was a great way to discover new (to us) enjoyments like Yannis Pappas and Graham Clark (I can't find his website, but here's one for his beard), and a huge privilege to see stars like Dylan Moran at their on-edge best.

The Islanders feels like a much bigger idea than a 50-minute 2-person musical.  A touchingly honest account of a weekend away from the differing viewpoints of both people involved.  It's lived, written and acted by the gorgeously charming Amy Mason, who is soundtracked and contradicted by Art Brut's Eddie Argos, deftly trampling the line between showing off and showmanship.  What he finds funny, she finds sad, and the whole thing will resonate with anyone who suffers from depression and anxiety - when they go away it's too close to home.  The "postcard" props for telling the story are a perfect idea, but they mean Amy's story ends when she says goodbye to Eddie, and the show might have gained an extra dimension with a little more about what she did next and how she became the person who's telling us the story now. 

Comedy about bereavement and anorexia?  Big tick.  A fabulous way of making something positive from overwhelming great negatives, while giving the audience new perspective on issues that are too often hidden away.
Over It is two shows that happen to sit perfectly together - two nice, funny and interesting people (Dave Chawner and Robyn Perkins) who have had terrible things happen to them (anorexia and death of a partner, respectively).  This is not self-help comedy - rather it's helping the rest of us.  We don't know what to say to people who are suffering, so they say it for us.  No-one knows what to do with the lingerie they bought with their beloved in mind once he's gone.  This must happen all the time, but no-one but Robyn Perkins talks about it.  There must be a lingerie mountain somewhere.  Handing someone a packet of crisps will not cure an eating disorder (my actual GP once suggested I "go on a nice holiday" as a substitute for taking medication for severe and lifelong depression, so I, for one, am convinced that this sort of thing does need saying aloud as much as possible, however obvious it seems). I'm glad these two people are working together, their heartbreaking stories and upbeat styles really complement each other well and remind us that while illness and death are always among us, so is friendship, ridiculousness and laughter.

Yay, more death, this time with Richard Herring.  It's sort of incongruous, because while previous shows have played on Herring's persona as rather an overgrown schoolboy (penises, Hitler, Jesus, not uncommon pre-adolescent obsessions), death is contrastingly... grown up.  In his awkward suit, standing amid dry-ice-swirled prop gravestones, he looks like the cover of a quietly-forgotten Jennings Fears the Reaper or Just William's Grieving Relatives.  It's a funny and thoughtful show though, not academically researched like some of his others, but pulled out from a dark place, carefully examined, and then laughed at.

Robin Ince is another one who gives good powerpoint.  I was hoping for some Infinite-Monkeys-style science for the tired of brain, but of course Ince is more than that.  His claim that he is trying to fit a two hour show into fifty minutes sounds at first like comedy hyperbole, but as the facts and diagrams skitter past, we see that he really is trying to give us the full value of the longer show, condensed.  Of course there are tangents, that is half the fun, after all science is literally about everything. Sometimes I wonder if it's him who's the star, or the information he's presenting, but really who else could hold the Assembly Rooms Music Hall enthralled with anecdotes about Darwin's worms, or a rant at people who aren't looking at a rhino properly?  

John Lloyd is like the after-dinner speaker who would rescue the dullest corporate event in the whole field of toothpaste technology or soil science.  Presumably he is here to sell the book Afterliff (and does), but apart from giving us moments of deliciousness from the book and telling us a little about the original Meaning of Liff and Douglas Adams, he is charming and twinkly, laughing at his own jokes, and dropping in lots of fun gossip about all the much-loved and hugely influential British comedy he's been part of, from Blackadder to Spitting Image to QI.  As we leave, I hear a small boy tell his dad off for laughing at the swearing.

I've only talked about stuff we liked, so if you're in Edinburgh, or you get a chance to see these shows somewhere else, I promise they are good.  Here are links from the online programme - (Over It is a free show where you put some cash in at the end if you like it, a bit like church, only you come out feeling better, so you can't actually buy tickets).


*= attending a funeral in