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Return of the quiz

Thursday saw my first performance of How To Win A Pub Quiz in 18 months. When I last performed it, I was in Wellington, NZ, and would start off making jokes about the thing called Covid-19 that I’d been hearing about in the news. What’s all that about?

While so much has changed within the past year and a half, there are some things that haven’t changed – namely my material. Admittedly, I have dropped the Covid opener. What also hadn’t changed was my show’s magical ability to sell out venues, provided there’s a cap at 60 people.

Although this isn’t quite the full story. As it was almost as local as physically possible, about half of the audience were people I knew – either school friends or neighbours – and knowing so many people in the room certainly heightened the nerves after such a long break. But the other half of the audience were people I had never met before.

It was a real luxury to do a gig within walking distance of my house, which isn’t something I’d done outside of festivals since my days running that delightful Friday night gig in Walthamstow. There is something joyous about staying in the venue for a couple of hours after the show for a few pints, before stumbling home and not having to worry about potential road closures and diversions on the drive.

But there were some technical issues. When I arrived at the venue, no one could figure out how to get the sound come out of the speakers. The volumes and other levels were controlled by a tablet. Give me a clunky old analogue mixing desk any day of the week, where you can’t alter the settings by the mis-swipe of a finger. Once that mystery was solved, I had to figure out how to fix the microphone that was cutting out every other word. I switched to another cable and changed the mic, it worked better but some problems with sound and acoustics did persist.

The windows on the left of the room were all open to let in some much-needed fresh air and get the germs out. However, the trade-off from this meant that it also caused some sound to escape. As a result, people at the very back of the room found it difficult to hear what I was saying for the first part of the show. Not only this, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying to me from the back of the room. And this is kind of crucial for a show that is so interactive and aims to allow everyone to add something to proceedings.

It was also really hot, to the point where I was sweating profusely from my forehead and that then flowed into my right eyeball. Cue stinging.

Yet despite the sound issues and the heat, people who came along all seemed to enjoy themselves. They even said so when I was within earshot unbeknown to them, which is normally when you would get slagged off. Others also came up to me afterwards to say how much they enjoyed it. Plus the people complaining that they couldn’t hear ended up coming a very close second in the quiz. It’s possible they were just getting in their excuses early. So there is certainly an element of me being too hard on myself.

The problem with performing the show to a particular standard or level is that when it doesn’t quite reach the level you know it can and has done, it always feels slightly disappointing – even though it shouldn’t.

I felt a little rusty, but I settled back into it again. And by the end, it felt like I had never been away. There is definitely still life in the old pub quiz dog yet. Just how much life remains to be seen, but it is a very difficult thing to leave behind.

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Another gig

I had my second gig on the Covid comedy comeback trail on Monday. It was in Swindon, so only 40 minutes drive away. This is considered local in comedy.

Despite being about twice the distance away as the Cirencester gig, it was much less hassle to get there. The roadworks that Highways were doing on my route had ended and I’m pleased to report that there were no issues – other than trying to work out how Swindon’s famous Magic Roundabout actually functions. The trick is to not think too much about it. The more thought you give it, the more confused you’ll get.

As a result of no delays or diversion, I arrived at the venue much less stressed. And I was on first after the first break instead of opening the show, giving me a bit more time to relax and get my set and thoughts together instead.

Pre-Covid, arriving at a venue stressed and going pretty much straight on wouldn’t phase me too much – see Newcastle gig in October 2017 with the five-hour journey and two solid hours of delays. But after ten months without a gig, I could definitely feel the rust.

Monday’s gig had much less rust. They were a great crowd and it was nice to see another full room. I did a lot of riffing around the material, which is always when I have the most fun. I tried the two new bits I’d first aired in Cirencester the previous week.

Some bits went better, some bits didn’t. But it felt much better on the whole, and not quite so much of a shock to the system as my absence from the stage had been four days, as opposed to ten months.

It still feels a little odd to be around crowds and I think I was the only person in the venue wearing a mask. I was convinced that I had picked up Covid after the gig, so went and got a test. And it turned out to be negative. So suck on that, you respiratory illness with a pretentious spiky crown.

After some uncertainty about whether I want to continue with stand-up, I want to do much more of it. I just need to get more gigs in the diary and get back into the habit of booking admin. In fairness, it has been about three years since I have done much of that, and that was after getting incredibly lazy with it for a few years preceding it. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where the gigs are and how to get a spot, but I’ll get there.

Now, my attention goes to Thursday when I perform HTWAPQ for the first time in 18 months. It will be at Stroud Brewery, so nice and local. I had no idea how many tickets I’d sold, as I’m thankfully unable to access the link. I found out a few days ago that have sold 41. This is a good number for the show and I have about 19 left to sell, so reckon I should get a few more in. Now I just need to see how much of it I can remember.

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Gigging again

On Thursday, I performed a stand-up set at an actual physical comedy gig for the first time in ten months. And it was also back in Cirencester, where I had my vaccine and don’t know if I’ve mentioned it a lot on here, but it’s where I used to work as a reporter for the local paper.

It was only ten miles away, which is a real luxury for a comedy gig. Now, one of the things I detest about performing comedy is driving to the gigs. And there’s nothing that makes my heart sink more than road closures and diversions, which are especially stressful if you’re on your way to the gig. But it’s also infuriating on the drive back afterwards late at night, where you just want to get home as quickly as is physically possible.

Given that my gig on Thursday was only ten miles away, I never thought there would be any difficulties with this. But Highways England managed to find a way, by closing the main road I take into Cirencester. I would expect Tom Tom to be deceived, but I was surprised that Google Maps didn’t pick it up.

I had to take a detour through the narrow back roads, where there’s often only enough room for one car to pass. This meant waiting for what seemed like 20 cars all coming the other way.

I arrived at the gig way more stressed than I should have. But I thought I may be on later in the night as I lived so close by. However, I found out that I would be opening the show in 20 minutes. Cue one trip to the toilet. Then three minutes before the show began, I felt the need for a second visit. Or number two number two.

I felt a little rusty and my cursed throat also threatened to sabotage one or two punchlines at the vital moment. I’d planned to try out some new material in the middle of my set, which didn’t all work. But there was I could feel the new bits clicking into place on stage and even ad-libbed some callbacks to the new stuff later on. And the tried and tested stuff was well received.

It was a great gig. The lads at Barking Toad had packed the room out, with people resorting to watching the gig from outside of the room as there was no space inside.

For the drive home, I was at least prepared for the diversion. Then the next day, I woke up at just after 5am to let my dog in the garden. But I struggled to go back to sleep again. My brain was going over the gig and figuring out what worked, what didn’t, and what would work better.

Stand-up comedy is sort of like a cross between a drug, depression, and a life of crime. You can never truly leave it behind. It’s always there, gnawing away at you somewhere. And just when you think you’ve got out of it and are clean, it drags you back in again. While I was giving some serious consideration to quitting during the past year, I now want to do more gigs. Stand-up comedy has taken its grip on me again, but just for how long remains to be seen.

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In the diary

I have an actual comedy gig booked in this next week. Although after a ten-month absence from the stage, my admin skills are a little rusty. I was convinced it was on Tuesday, but it turns out that it’s on Thursday.

The extra couple of days will prove useful, as it gives me more time to turn my half-formed ideas into hopefully functional jokes. Then again, as I’ve written on here many times over, you never truly know if a joke works until you try it out on an audience at a comedy gig or two.

It remains to be seen how many of these half-formed ideas will turn into successful jokes, but that’s part of the excitement and I’m looking forward to getting back on the comedy stage that was the one constant in my life for ten years; before the dark times, before Covid-19.

These past couple of weeks marks the first in a while I have started missing being on stage. This is partly due to seeing crowds at the scaled-down version of Edinburgh Fringe that is taking place this year; particularly seeing that back room at the Kilderkin full with people standing at the back. It brought back fond memories of that phenomenal run I had there in 2015 when I didn’t realise how much possibility lay before me. It didn’t bring back fond memories of the 2018 stint I did there, as I don’t have any of that run – just pain and sadness.

Edinburgh Fringe has always been the one thing that has kept me doing comedy, throughout the tough times – even bizarrely enough through the tough times at the Fringe as there is nowhere to run and demons must be confronted.

When you take Edinburgh Fringe away, it takes away a lot of my focus and incentive for doing comedy. I am now looking forward to returning there next year in whatever form that may be, possibly even with some of the new jokes I may try on Thursday.

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So long, farewell

After 18 months, it was time to bid farewell to my Covid mullet that had been keeping me company throughout the lockdowns. I never planned to grow it this long, it just sort of happened. Then I planned to get a haircut once the pandemic ended, but this doesn’t look like it’ll happen any time soon. As I’ve had my two doses of the vaccine, I thought this would have to suffice.

I doubt I will ever grow my hair as long again because long hair is actually really annoying. It was getting trapped and pulled in various places, sticking to the wax earplugs I wear to sleep, and taking ages to dry after having a shower before bedtime.

To do the chopping honours, I thought I’d track down someone who cut my hair several times between 15 and 12 years ago. In fact, she has also cut the hair of various members of my family. The last time she cut my hair, I had not long finished working as a reporter for the local paper. And as quite a lot has changed in the past 12 years, I thought she may like to know what has happened. I mean, not enough to actively stay in touch; just to be sort of casually informed.

I didn’t know the hairdresser’s full name but remembered her first name and the name of her business. A quick Google later and I found her website, then sent her a message and booked an appointment.

As it would turn out, it wasn’t the same person at all. She just so happened to share the same first name, be based in Cheltenham, and have the same business name – which was actually just an extension of her first name and adding the word ‘hair’ somewhere in the mix.

I came out of the salon looking unexpectedly like a 37-year-old Jack Grealish, with some stray longer bits at the side that I had to remove myself back home. Other than that, it’s a solid haircut.

From my last haircut in Napier, New Zealand, to the most recent in Cheltenham. It’s goodbye, Covid mullet. Hello, cold neck central.

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A 12 year wait

I love the British and Irish Lions more than any other form of international rugby. There is something magical about bringing together often rival players from four nations and trying to turn them into a functioning team against southern hemisphere opposition within a matter of weeks. It shouldn’t work, but it does. And a Lions tour almost always feels special, unless Clive Woodward is in charge.

While there is a rugby World Cup every four years when the same teams compete against each other, the Lions only play each country every 12 years. So if they don’t win a series, then they will have to wait 12 years to redeem themselves.

The last time the Lions played South Africa was in 2009, I watched the first test back home. But when the second test came around the following week, I was following the game on the Guardian live blog on my phone while in the relatives’ room at Frenchay hospital after my dad had been taken ill and was in intensive care.

This time around, I had to get a Now TV sports pass for a month after I cancelled the Sky package a couple of years ago.

As a series, the 2021 tests were some of the slowest and tedious rugby matches I have ever seen. Almost every few minutes, the match would stop and the referee would want to check a potential infringement from several angles. Video replays certainly have their place in refereeing, but they really shouldn’t keep getting in the way of just letting them play rugby.

The third test was the most frustrating of the lot. The Lions really had the win there for the taking and blew at least 16 points that were there on the table. But they did look so much better going forward with Finn Russell at 10. He really should have been involved in one of the earlier tests.

And there was something cruel about the kick that won the game being scored by Morne Steyn, who kicked also kicked the winning goal in 2009. A lot was made about him getting on and approaching retirement. But I’ve just checked, and I’m a week older than him.

A crazy amount of things have happened within the last 12 years. But after everything that’s gone on, I almost dread to think what’s going to happen in the next 12 years. And the ridiculous thing is that the next time the Lions tour South Africa, I will be 49 years old. That still doesn’t seem physically possible.

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A brew day

I spent Friday in a brewery making ale. Unfortunately, this is not the start of a new career path. It was all part of a crowdfunder in March that saw me spend more than £1,000 on various rewards to help Stroud Brewery survive the pandemic, with all of these rewards being beer-related. And the most expensive reward I paid for was to brew an ale with a group of friends, and us each getting to keep about 30 pints each of the finished brew.

It was an early start, with us needing to be down there for 8.30am. We began by emptying sacks of wheat and malt into the tun for what is known as the mash in. This would form the base of our ale. We got to taste the very early brew that can be best described as tasting like Ovaltine.

Then we started weighing the hops and other ingredients for a process known as sparging the wort. That is not a euphemism. All the liquid from the first tank would then be filtered into a second tank, where it would then be heated to high temperatures. Once the liquid had all transferred, it was time to get a shovel and clear the first tank of the leftover malt in what is known as the mash out. I learned a lot of new terms.

I also learned that brewing is much more scientific than I thought, with measurements and temperatures having to be accurate, otherwise everything becomes messed up. I don’t know quite what I was expecting. In fairness, I hadn’t given it a huge amount of thought, preferring to focus on what goes in a pint glass instead of how it got there.

Anyway, it was a really fun day. Also, it was certainly the most talking and socialising I had done in about 18 months. And the ale that we brewed should actually be drinkable and go on sale within the next month or so.

We finished the day having several pints and talking nonsense, thus proving once and for all that I can organise a piss-up in a brewery.

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Edinburgh sensations

A few things this week have made me think of Edinburgh Fringe. One thing, strangely enough, was the EdFringe website itself. Odd, that. I had a look to see what shows were going ahead this year and seeing that website layout brought about rumbles of terror in the bowel area, along with a compulsion to check ticket sales and panic I’ve not done enough previews.

Despite my adamant predictions that Ed Fringe wouldn’t be going ahead this year due to Covid, it is proceeding all the same. I’m still convinced it’s not a good idea. But I have a few friends who are going up and I hope they have good runs. I’m just glad to be sitting this one out. Saying that, I said to Langton that I’m convinced that the versions of us from 2011 would insist on going up and nothing would stop them from doing so, not even a global pandemic. Audience apathy is much more potent and they could take that all day long.

The second thing that made me think of the Fringe was the weather today. After the heatwave, the temperature cooled dramatically today. And that combination of a cold wind blowing in warm air and a few specs of rain instantly take me back to the Scottish capital. It is a much cheaper way of doing it.

Then the third thing was also today. I had some posters printed for my show at Stroud Brewery on 9 September (tickets are available on their website, here endeth the plug) and took them to the venue to get some put up around the place. That was it. Nothing poetic or evocative, just posters.

In other news, I had my second jab of the Covid vaccine this week. Originally, it was booked for mid-August in Cirencester. No doubt I would then reminisce about my awful time as a reporter there. But I got an email from the NHS saying I could book an earlier appointment. And it turns out that there was a walk-in place two miles away in Stroud. So that’s what I did. From arrival to injection to exit, it only took barely 20 minutes. There wasn’t even much of a queue. Just one of many reasons why Stroud is better than Cirencester.

Anyway, I’ve not had any real side effects, other than it hurting when I raise my arm and the area around where the needle went in is a bit red. This also means I can now finally get a haircut. I had planned to not get one until the pandemic was over, but that doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon. I can’t control how long Covid will last, but I can control how long my long hair will – sort of.

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Loki

I will continue with my series in writing about MCU shows on Disney+. It’s not a review though, as I would then be a reviewer and thus everything I oppose when it comes to the creative industries.

Anyway, the first season Loki has just finished and it was great. It involved time travel and I’m almost always a sucker for anything that involves time travel. Just for the record, the mid-90s show Crime Traveller starring Chloe Annett was really good and deserved a second series.

But much of my time travel fix comes from Doctor Who. And there was a fair amount about Loki that reminded me of this, but more if the central character was The Master instead. The final few episodes of the Capaldi run also features male and female versions of the same character as they also did in Loki.

Also, meeting a character at the end of their life, when we’re going to see more of their past in future stories, is right out of the River Song playbook. That particular character in Loki reminded me of John Simm’s Master. i.e. just trying a bit too hard to be wacky and insane, with the writing jarring just a little. But these are small gripes.

My favourite MCU Disney+ series is still WandaVision, mainly because it was so unexpected and refreshingly unconventional. What Loki and Wandavision also share is keeping the audience guessing, letting them try to figure things out at the same time as the characters are. I always find this fun.

But when it came to the multiverse, Loki went full in with what WandaVision so cruelly and brilliantly teased us with. Come to think of it, Spider-Man: Far From Home also teased the multiverse, but WandaVision did it better.

And we’re now getting a multiverse. The way Loki ended also set up infinite possibilities for the future of the MCU, and that is very exciting indeed.

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Something about football

I think there’s something to do with football happening today, so I thought I would write about my relationship with the game.

Growing up in Stroud, I’m not from a football part of the world. We have Forest Green Rovers now – and did then – but I was barely even aware of them until they got to the FA Trophy final at Wembley in 1999. I planned to go to the final but would end up being in Northern Ireland visiting family at the time.

Anyway, the location is important here – also note the past tense for the next several paragraphs – because although I’m not from a football part of the world, I grew up loving the sport.

I collected cards at primary school and also stickers for my Merlin Premier League album, which I very nearly completed in 1995 – albeit having to use Warren Barton twice and also a picture of Michael Jackson, years before his statue appeared at Fulham. I even tried Panini for the 1994 World Cup, but it didn’t feel right. And it’s much easier to fill up a sticker album over a whole season, as opposed to a month-long tournament.

And my club was Manchester United, predictably as a 90s child. West Ham were my second team after my dad’s aunt gave me an old kit from the 1960s that once belonged to her son. My support was that easy to gain.

But it was always England that got me the most excited, possibly as they didn’t play every week and it felt like more of an occasion. There was something special about watching them playing at the old Wembley. The white shirts with the dark blue shorts and white socks, plus a strange-looking big badge. I couldn’t quite work out what was on it, but it certainly didn’t look like lions to me.

Tournaments were my favourite part, before the inevitable exit. As a six-year-old, I remember crying when Italia 90 finished. Not when England went out, just when the coverage ended. I didn’t enjoy Euro 92 so much, other than getting bought an England home shirt pyjamas set. Still, Euro 92 failed to diminish my excitement for England, even after the failure to qualify for USA 94 – that possibly remains my favourite World Cup as it was the first one I properly remember.

Things went up another notch with Euro 96. After a lacklustre start, England suddenly became really good. The game against The Netherlands was my highlight. I remember running around the living room and jumping onto and off the chairs and sofa. England were really good.

They won the penalty shoot-out against Spain. Although quite how much they owe to Uri Gellar, we will never truly know. At the time, I was down in North Devon at a farm park called The Milky Way, where I milked a goat – thus living up to the hype. The penalty shoot-out was on in one of the rooms there and I kept running to watch it and would then run back to tell my dad what was happening.

Then came the ill-fated semi-final against Germany and it really felt like England could do it, especially when they scored first. I wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch it the whole of extra time and the infamous penalty kick, but saw it on GMTV the next morning. I often wonder what became of the poor man who had his kick saved. Anyway, it made me so upset that I defaced my German exercise book with swastikas. Yeah. That’ll teach them. Looking back on it, I was quite nationalistic for much of my pre-teens and teens – and football was almost solely responsible – mainly as I didn’t know any better and lacked vital life experience.

I may have even thought Brexit was a good idea when I was 12 years old. As much as I love the song, there is even an argument that the essence of the anthem Three Lions laid the foundations for that horrendous political event 20 years later. i.e. “We used to be good. Now we’re not, but we might be good again based on historical events we had nothing to do with.” MEGA, anyone? The Leave campaign even recorded an appalling cover. It is abysmal and you’re better off not watching it.

Anyway, the excitement (and nationalism) continued at France 98, with a new generation of England players that included Michael Owen, who I thought I looked a bit like if I ran fast enough and people squinted. Inevitably, England went out on penalties to Argentina after Beckham got sent off. But I was convinced that the real reason they lost was that I sat on the wrong side of the bus to school on the day after I sat on the other side for previous victories. The next day at home, I printed out something I made on Word with a picture of the World Cup and the words “English and proud” on it, or something similar. As it was on A4 and my upstairs bedroom window, I doubt anyone would have actually been to read it outside.

After Glenn Hoddle lost the England job for saying some horrendous things about disabled people, it was the turn of Kevin Keegan and the end of my fanaticism would soon come crashing down. It wasn’t immediate, I continued to closely follow all things England throughout 1999 and into 2000.

Then came Euro 2000. I was perhaps more hyped than any other tournament, as it was the summer I was doing my GCSEs and I had more time to follow the coverage – mainly as I wasn’t doing any work. I even sent my tactical suggestions through to Teletext. My suggestion was 4-4-2 but with a diamond midfield with Nick Barmby on the left and Gareth Barry at left-back for balance, as he was that formerly rare beast of a left-footed Englishman.

Anyway, Kevin Keegan clearly can’t have been reading Teletext for ideas on tactics – or arguably from anywhere else, for that matter. And England went out to at the group stages after Phil Neville gave away a late penalty against Romania.

I was genuinely distraught and spent the following couple of hours with my head in my hands. Then I realised that I’d had enough of the torment and severed my emotional ties with football. I didn’t think it was worth it as England will always let you down.

Not being from a football part of the world, this detachment was actually pretty easy. There are some cities and towns where you step out of your door and there’s a flow of people walking to the stadium on match day. I didn’t have that. And there are some families where football is a big event that everyone goes to together. I also didn’t have that.

Rugby was now officially my only sport, where I had also achieved more success on the pitch at school. And by “more success”, I mean that I was a permanent starter in the school team for a few years. We didn’t win that often, but it far exceeded my record in the school football team of being a substitute twice and only getting on the pitch on one of those occasions. Still, I did get a medal for a final I didn’t play in. The very early 2000s was also around that magical time in rugby when England were well on their way to becoming the best team in the world, something that seemed forever out of reach in football.

That’s not to say I stopped watching football entirely. When England were on, I pretended I wasn’t really watching and didn’t really care. But somehow, the games always seemed to be on in my house by some strange coincidence.

Sven Goran Eriksson’s era started off brightly enough before that sense of entitlement from the underachieving “Golden Generation” kicked in. They became a petulant bunch who grew more unlikeable with each year that passed – and didn’t seem to like each other very much either. Then there was playing Fifa at uni, which became an integral part of everyday life.

I continued to follow the team on the sly throughout the brief Steve McClaren tenure, and into Capello’s, but still didn’t like a lot of the players. Along with a lack of likeability, underachievement was the other recurring theme. I followed it a bit when Roy Hodgson was in charge, but not that intently.

And then 2018 happened. There were no expectations, which is always the best way. And somehow, the team managed to get through to the World Cup semi-finals, which I had never witnessed before as in 1990, I was six years old and asleep at the time. I got into it and my heart was beating fast during that game. To alleviate this, I had to go out and buy a bottle of red wine from the Co-op on Burton Road and proceeded to drink it all. I even managed to fit into the England shirt I got for my 14th birthday, which was the same colour as my wine.

But the team didn’t seem arrogant and entitled like the previous bunch. In fact, a lot of this may well be down to the current team having to go through the lower leagues. A few were also released from clubs when they were teenagers and had to find their own way, away from the security of an academy. The 2018 campaign was built on set pieces and they looked shaky at the back. But that’s all changed in 2021. They look much better prepared and can now even score in open play.

I hope England win tonight. If anyone has earned his success, it’s Gareth Southgate. Regardless of what happens tonight, he’s certainly put some of those penalty demons from 1996 to rest and England are in a major tournament final for the first time in 55 long years.

I also hope England win tonight for the 12-year-old me, whose hopes and expectations won’t end up being for nothing permanently. But he has a long wait ahead of him and will first have to get over his nationalism. And if they don’t, then it won’t break my heart this time. One way or another, life will go on.