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Returning of returns

I have returned from a most excellent week in North Devon. It was sunny every day, but that nice autumn heat that is a pleasant one and never gets too sweaty. I also had a Hocking’s ice cream every day, which is a habit I could certainly get used to a little too easily.

I managed to avoid taking my dog to the beach, opting to take her on the rural back roads where there was much less chance of meeting another dog and experiencing any canine confrontations.

And I swam in the sea. It was rather cold and I didn’t stay in for long, but I did it. And that’s the main thing. All in all, it was a successful trip to a part of the world that is full of fond childhood memories.

But this week is going to be a busy one where I am plunged back into the real world as a reluctant grown up. I’m heading back to London this afternoon for the first time since the end of March 2020. This could well be my longest gap between visits to the capital since possibly the late-1990s. This evening, I’m meeting my old comedy muckers Langton and Moz for a pint. It will be the first time the three of us have been together in four years.

Then tomorrow morning, I have to do HR stuff at my new-old place of work. So I’m hoping those old dogs won’t lead me astray like they did circa 2010. Then I’ll be back in full-time work again after a two-year hiatus disguised as freelancing. But I will be working from home, so spared of the ordeal that is the commute. I am already looking forward to that first full month of pay.

And on Friday, there’s going to be some more comedy. I’ll be going back to Swansea for what is set to be the second and final performance of How To Win A Pub Quiz for 2021. As things currently stand, anyway, I am always open to bookings – and also money. I’ve not had a gig since my last performance in Stroud just over a month ago, with admin still proving the main stumbling block. I doubt I’ll feel quite as rusty as my first gig back in August and should be able to slip right back into the rhythm of things. I mean, I’ve done the show enough times by now that I find it far easier to perform than a stand-up set at a comedy gig.

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Winding up the freelancing

This week was my final full week as a freelance journalist, at least for the time being. That is if it’s possible to have a full week as a freelance journalist when not working full-time hours.

Anyway, I had three deadlines for features and managed to meet them all. Working to freelance deadlines certainly took a bit of getting used to. Initially, I barely did any work until about four days before the article was due.

I would often wonder why it always felt like such a rush and why I never seemed to have enough time. Then I remembered that I often had three or four weeks after receiving the brief to get the article written.

Occasionally when I get into bad habits, I hear the voices of my old editor and news editor in my head from my reporter days for corrective action. In this case, it was my news editor who used to say: “Always put your calls in first.”

As if by magic, when I was more organised with putting articles together, the deadlines became a lot easier to hit.

I have enjoyed a lot about the life of a freelancer. There has been the variety in workload in writing about various subjects and freedom to choose what hours I work, plus ample time for dog walking.

What I haven’t enjoyed is the uncertainty of it, never knowing whether or not I’ll manage to get any work from one month to the next. I read something on Twitter that freelancing was a constant balance between either taking on too much work or not having enough.

Then there is the matter of invoicing and chasing unpaid invoices. Some publishers are really good at paying within a month of receiving the invoice, but others can take the better part of two months to pay up. There have been others that have taken even longer, and the chasing up can get rather tiresome.

But I know it can work, I know how to put together features, and will probably continue writing the occasional freelance article here and there for stuff that interests me. I also know roughly how much I can realistically earn from it a year. I will save this information for future reference if another viable income stream materialises. Say, one that might involve saying words into a microphone in the hope of receiving laughter.

Based on current statistics, this could take a while. Things are still sluggish in that department, even if this is currently half intended. I did have one gig booked this week, but I didn’t actually end up performing. The gig was an unpaid 10 minutes and 30 miles away. I have no problem with either of these facts ordinarily, as I was going to use it for testing new material. But then came the madness with petrol supplies and I thought it was best to conserve what fuel I did have left in my tank. This is not a metaphor.

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Admin time

In what must be my most productive day of comedy admin for about three years, I sent three emails for booking gigs yesterday. I sent one, then saw other spots advertised and got on what could almost be considered a roll.

I don’t know if I’ll get any of them, but I need to get back into the habit of trying again. It’s all about persistence, or perhaps just not taking the hint.

It’s difficult to get back into the gigging game quickly at the moment as many spots are filled for some time yet due to the Covid backlog, while others are booked far in advance.

In fact, my reason for getting back on the gig-based horse was for the performance of HTWAPQ at the local brewery that I had booked in around March during their crowd funder campaign. I don’t know if I’d have started gigging again yet otherwise, given how everything still feels a bit weird with Covid. And it’s hardly like I’m being inundated with offers at the moment.

But performing stand-up again has given me that itch that I now want to scratch. This week, I have a gig in Bristol. Then I don’t have anything booked until 22 October when I’ll be doing HTWAPQ in Swansea. After that, things might get increasingly itchy. Having long interludes between gigs also makes it much harder to hone new material. But the only way to scratch the itch permanently and get the material honed is through regular gig admin. Unfortunately, they don’t sell any cream for this sort of thing.

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Change in hours

This past week, I have accepted an offer to return to full-time work. After two years of freelance writing, some travelling, and plenty of dog walking, I made the decision purely for financial reasons.

Since the new financial year began, my commissions have picked up a lot on the previous year. I’ve probably already earned half of what I made in the last year. And from May to the start of August, things were rather busy. For the most part, I had two commissions every week. Then things suddenly stopped and the work stopped coming in. For two or three weeks, I was twiddling my thumbs and wondering if I’d ever get another commission again. Emails to contacts didn’t result in any new work.

Things did pick up again at the end of August, and September has been about as busy as the busiest period earlier this year. But it did start me thinking that I may need a more stable source of income. I’d certainly never be able to buy a house on freelance earnings, not that this has ever been one of my highest priorities.

When I started freelancing after Edinburgh in 2019, I didn’t think it would last forever. In fact, I was fairly sure the work would dry up within a matter of months. When I was in New Zealand and thinking about what I was going to do when I arrive home, I was fully prepared to return to the supermarket for the third stint there. Although the work kept coming in every month, even if I would have almost certainly earned far more at the supermarket.

Regardless, there is no guarantee that work will continue coming in at current levels. Then a job offer came in from the company I used to work for and I thought it made sense. I’ll be doing a different job and in another department, but it should mean I go to London slightly more regularly.

However, things aren’t changing quite as much as they normally would when starting a new job. For one thing, I will not be moving anywhere – or even commuting for that matter. The job is fully remote, meaning that I can stay put in Stroud and continue living a very similar lifestyle with plenty of dog walks and brewery visits, just with a lot more money.

There were all sorts of things I had planned to write over the next year, with little progress made so far. I’m hoping now that working full-time will at least provide me with some focus on activities outside of office hours. The plan is still to move back to London in September 2022, only now I may go there having doubled my savings.

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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.