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The taste of a pint

The pubs have opened again and it still doesn’t feel quite right to go in them, what with the looming threat from a certain deadly virus.

Stroud appears to have one of the lower infection rates of coronavirus in the country, at least from the information I can find. It makes sense, what with the relatively small population and all the open spaces and clean air. But make no mistake, the virus is out there and some people living down the road have had it.

So with some caution, I met some friends for some beers. Because when it comes to caution, alcohol is obviously the best thing to have.

This is by far the longest I’ve not been down to the local brewery since I started going down there during visits back home about seven years ago. Travelling to the other side of the world and a global pandemic kind of got in the way a bit.

You have to book a table, which feels a bit weird. But they’ve clearly give everything a great deal of thought, with tables well spaced out and limits to the number of people who can sit at them. And you don’t go to the bar, instead there’s table service.

Those thinking that pubs with social distancing will mean lower takings at the bar have failed to take table service into the account. It is very easy to spend a lot of money without even realising when people keep coming around and asking you if you’d like more. “Why, yes. I would very much like another pint.”

And another. And another. Let’s just say I had more than three. In fact, I kind of lost track.

And while I’ve been drinking bottles and cans from there throughout lockdown, I’d forgotten just how good a pint tastes from a cask. In fact, it tastes a little too good.

But the downside of table service is that you get the bill at the end, instead of previously paying in instalments during rounds. And I was audibly shocked when I received mine. I even forgot I have a discount card.

It was the most I had probably drank since Wellington in early March after one of my shows, when I was also a gigging comedian.

Thankfully, my current accommodation is substantially better than that abysmal hostel I was staying in Wellington, which had no ventilation and there were two toilets between 50 rooms. My competition for the toilet at the moment is dramatically lower. And for that, I’m grateful.

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Clone Wars and Rebels

I think after three entries, it is safe to abandon the lockdown diary facade. I meant to write something in June, but that didn’t happen.

One of the main reasons I’ve not done much writing of late is that I have been binge-watching the Star Wars animated series Clone Wars and Rebels. I’d heard they were good and had wanted to watch them previously, but the lack of a TV or subscription to call my own in the last decade created something of a hindrance.

Despite not being a massive fan of the prequels, I’m surprised by quite how much I enjoyed Clone Wars. They managed to achieve something the prequels were unable to and make Anakin actually likeable, with his inner darkness more nuanced instead of just flicking a switch and turning to the darkside as he had to for plot purposes.

Another impressive feat was that even though you knew the fates of most of the characters, it was still compelling and interesting to watch. And that’s all thanks to the writing. In the episode where the clone trooper called Fives uncovers the truth about the inhibitor chip inside the head of each clone, the story is written in such a way that you at least have a glimmer of hope that he’s going to succeed in revealing the truth – even if you know deep down that he’s ultimately doomed. In places, the series is also very funny when it intends to be in a way that the prequel and sequel trilogies often weren’t.

It doesn’t fix my main gripe with the Clone Wars depicted in the prequels, which is that it never really made sense for the Jedi to be fighting droids when the enemy forces should have been a relentless onslaught of clones. The clue is in the name. But the animated series could only work within the parameters of what had already been established, which Dave Filoni took and improved dramatically.

After Clone Wars, I moved onto Rebels. The first thing that’s immediately noticeable is that the animation is a poorer quality than the Clone Wars, with Ezra looking like someone from a PlayMobil set.

It took at least a season or so to get going and the characters took some time to get used to. As the seasons progressed, I enjoyed it more. But Clone Wars is definitely the stronger series.

I have far more to say on these series and may include it in that longer article I’ve been writing about Star Wars that I may end up pitching to somewhere.

I will just finish by saying that both series delved far deeper into the Star Wars mythos than we’ve seen in any of the films, and proved an important reminder that it is still possible to tell plenty of new and exciting stories in that galaxy far, far away.

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Lockdown diaries – Volume three: Thimbleweed Park

Well, this lockdown diaries thing never really took off, did it? Never mind. I at least managed one entry in May, in the final few hours of stoppage time.

I try and avoid play computer games. This isn’t because I don’t like them, quite the opposite in fact. I have spent possibly hundreds of thousands of hours playing them, ever since I got a Game Gear for Christmas in 1992.

The main reason that I try and avoid games is because I get addicted very easily, to the extent where it becomes all-consuming and I’m unable to concentrate on anything else. I become irritable and distracted, constantly thinking about the game in any time that I’m away from it.

The most effective way of going cold turkey and getting clean was to not take my PS3 with me when I moved to London. I think the last game I played was in 2011 and was Telltale’s Back to the Future games, which were highly enjoyable. I’m still using the same laptop as I write this, which tells you how out of date my computer is. That’s the other thing about computer games: technology moves on so quickly and it can cost a lot of money to keep up with the latest stuff.

I’m not one for online multiplayer games. For me, a game with a good story is what it’s all about. This is for the sake of my own health as much as anything else. With a story, I at least have a way out afterwards instead of continuing playing forever.

The reason I am writing about computer games is that I have recently fallen off the wagon in the best possible way. The other week, I spent around 17 hours playing Thimbleweed Park in about two and a half days.

In case you didn’t know, it’s an adventure game made by Ron Gilbert – creator of Monkey Island – thanks to crowdfunding. It is clearly made by people who want to make adventure games because of a genuine love for them, no other reason.

The MKI influence is for all to see, as well as Day of the Tentacle – where you can switch between different characters to complete the puzzles. There are also references aplenty to the glorious games of the past.

A sweary clown pushing over a mime on stilts and then the mime’s furious reactions are some of the biggest laughs I’ve had from a game in years. It’s well up there with ruining someone’s stamp collection in Day of the Tentacle.

The sheer amount of writing that has gone onto it is impressive, especially in the libraries where titles, blurbs and extracts for what seems like thousands of books have been written despite them playing no real part in the larger game.

If you’re playing the hard version, some of the puzzles can be tough to crack. Thankfully, there’s a handy in-game hotline you can call for hints. It’s just as well it’s not a real hotline, as I dread to think what my phone bill would be.

I think it is safe to put Thimbleweed Park well up there with the very best adventure games. It’s full of off-beat humour, great ideas, mystery and intrigue. You never quite know what a character’s true motives are, or exactly where the story is going. It takes quite a meta twist towards the end, but I’m fine with that kind of thing.

After completing it, I was instantly left wanting more. This was possibly due to my addiction levels being in full swing. Fortunately, Ron Gilbert was bored during lockdown made an expansion pack with some more levels. I’ve not played it yet, but am looking forward to in the not too distant future once I’ve had some time out.

They don’t really make adventure games any more, and it looks all the more inevitable that Disney is just going to sit on its vault of LucasArts magic instead of sharing those timeless characters with the world again. And with Telltale now also fallen, it further reduces the chances of new adventure games being made.

But I’m just glad people like Ron Gilbert are out there who are still making new additions to the adventure game legacy.

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Lockdown diaries – Volume two

I feel it’s time to write something else on here, as it at least gives me something to do.

Since I last wrote, I haven’t done a massive amount. My main activities have been dog walking and watching things on streaming services. And before yesterday, I’d not ventured out of my village other than to the nearby woods with my dog.

My Google Maps Timeline for the month is going to be pretty short. I finally managed to stop it tracking my movements by not doing much moving around.

A lot of comedy folk are currently doing things online. I’ve been thinking about doing something with HTWAPQ online for a while, possibly in the form of a podcast. However, the pandemic has caught me by surprise and my main barriers are technological. My laptop is a decade old and is unreliable in both connecting to the internet and to microphones. And the PC in my house is about 13 years old. In theory, I could do the quiz on my phone. But then I wouldn’t be able to respond as easily to heckles, and interactivity is where the most fun is had. I will continue to think up ways to work something out, even if I know full well that I probably won’t get anything sorted until the pandemic is over.

The most exciting thing was going to the supermarket yesterday in Stroud for the first time since before I went to Australia in January. I wore my face mask and some gloves, which no one else there really felt the need for. I had to queue outside for about 15 minutes and then stick to the up and down lanes in the aisles. I successfully did the shop, which is where the excitement ends.

And I’ve written a couple of freelance journalism articles. If you’re looking for someone to write words for money, do get in touch. I have actual journalist training and experience, even if I don’t have the qualifications.

I’ve also written about 1,000 words on my thoughts on the latest Star Wars trilogy. Because if there’s one thing that the world needs right now, it’s more opinions on Star Wars published on the internet. It’s not quite finished yet and needs work before being ready for public consumption. Still, that didn’t stop The Rise of Skywalker being released.

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Lockdown diaries – Volume one

I am ten days into my quarantine after returning to the UK. So far, I don’t seem to have any noticeable symptoms of Covid-19. But I’m not counting my chickens just yet, mainly because I don’t have any to count.

Although I at least count myself as very lucky, to have not only made it back just before everything went into lockdown, but to also have been able to visit Australia and New Zealand. I don’t know how much longer it’ll be before anyone is able to do that again so freely.

Other than a sore throat that comes and goes, as well as a slight cold, I’m feeling pretty much fine. One key test is walking my dog up a steep and long hill every day. If I can get to the top of it without collapsing with breathing difficulties, then I’ll take that as a positive sign.

My flights home went without a hitch. The most uncomfortable thing was wearing a face mask for pretty much the entirety of my journey. It felt slightly eerie getting to Paddington Station around 7.30am on a weekday and finding it to be pretty much empty.

After almost 36 hours of travelling I made it back to Stroud. The outskirts of the town are probably one of the best places to be in such a time. It’s full of open space, fresh air and countryside, and crucially, not that many people.

So far, my days have mainly revolved around long dog walks and watching things on Netflix and Disney+. I would be lying if I tried to pretend that this is drastically different from my life back home in normal circumstances. The only thing I’m really missing is being able to meet friends down at Stroud Brewery for a pint.

I’m going to try and write often on here for however long this pandemic lasts for, to preserve my own sanity as much as anything else. Or at least what’s left of it.

I’m also going to use this time to write things that I’ve been meaning to for years. One of them is for a script of of Doctor Who that has been in my head since 2007, which is also a brief description of the story as it involves things tunnelling inside peoples’ heads.

At the moment, I don’t have the ending sorted. But then this detail hasn’t stopped many Doctor Who scripts being written over the years. It’s difficult to see it ever making it into production in the foreseeable future, but in order to succeed or fail you have to try first.

The other thing I feel I should mention is the cancelling of Edinburgh Fringe. I am disappointed, as it has been a firm fixture on my calendar now for the past decade and the source of so much euphoria, plus a hefty chunk of despair. If it wasn’t for the Fringe, I probably would have quit comedy a few years ago. It is the one thing that has kept me going in recent years when indifference from some audiences, combined with a lack of gigs, has made me question whether it’s worth persisting with.

Nevertheless, I understand the reasons for cancelling and definitely think it’s for the best. The city of Edinburgh could do with a year off as much as anything else. The Fringe has become too bloated and hopefully the break will give organisers enough time for a rethink.

At the moment, it’s unclear how long the lockdown is going to last for. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it will be for things to return to how they were before. I don’t know how the comedy circuit will look after all of this, or even if I’ll be part of it. But times like this remind me just how there are things much more important things in life.

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Christchurch and lockdown

I’ve spent the last five nights in Christchurch due to my replanned itinerary after my Dunedin Fringe show being cancelled.

As it turns out, the entire Dunedin Fringe festival has been cancelled in the past week due to the coronavirus.

Despite my petulance and moaning about ticket sales at my other shows, I’m lucky I did get to perform any of them and that the festivals even went ahead in the first place. At the moment, the 2020  Edinburgh Fringe hangs in the balance. The organisers are still insisting that it’s going ahead, mainly so they don’t have to give refunds for registration fees to thousands of performers.

In other places I’ve visited on this trip, I’ve made an effort to get out and see things. But the mood has changed pretty dramatically within the last week due to that pesky virus. As a result, I’ve mainly tried to avoid contact with people. Although this isn’t the easiest thing to do when staying in hostels.

I also tracked down one of the last remaining face masks in Christchurch.

And I’ve been desperately hoping that the sniffles and sore throat I’ve got isn’t anything more serious. The sniffle started on Stewart Island after the colder temperatures there, so there.

Originally, I’d booked to fly home on 25 March. But the airline I’m flying with changed my flights early last month due to the coronavirus. In another strange coincidence, the end of the day tomorrow is when New Zealand closes its borders, stops flights, and goes into lockdown.

I’m going via Hong Kong, which will close its borders with NZ minutes after my flight arrives there. It’s all feeling a lot of like Indiana Jones rolling underneath a closing door. I’ll make sure none of my hats get left behind.

Being caught in the midst of a global pandemic isn’t quite how I saw my trip ending. Still, it’s certainly a new experience – just not one I’d choose.

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Stewart Island

After visiting Gisborne and Napier, the third and final location on my list of places I didn’t visit in 2007 was Stewart Island.

Stewart Island is famous for its bird life, as it is without many of the invasive rodents and other small predators that blight much of the rest of the country.

On the ferry over, I saw an albatross or three. Make no mistake, these mothers are huge.

And three of the birds I saw at Zealandia – the NZ pigeon, the tui, and kaka parrot – have all struggled for numbers in years gone by. I can relate (Audience numbers? Fine, forget it). Yet within minutes of checking in at my hostel, I saw all three of these birds in the garden.

My encounters with rare birds didn’t end there. Insert your innuendo here if you must.

There was another bird I had never seen at all as it is one of the very rarest. I am talking about the kiwi. These small, flightless creatures are teetering on the brink of extinction with around 68,000 left in the world. This is down from several million a couple of hundred years ago.

Stewart Island has the largest population of wild kiwi anywhere in the world, which was one of my main reasons for visiting there.

They’re nocturnal, meaning that spotting one is a much trickier prospect. On my first night, I went on an impromptu walk along the coast for a couple of miles just as the sun was beginning to go down. But alas, I didn’t see a single kiwi.

On my second night, I heard there was a pub quiz at the island’s only pub. A couple of people at my hostel asked if I’d like to join them for it. As it turns out, I am quite partial to a pub quiz.

It was in the pub where I had my first pint of Export Gold lager since 2007, when I drank countless glasses of the stuff. It was pretty bland, so it’s nice to know that some things do the stay the same in an ever-changing world.

Back to the quiz, I should add that on the team of four, it was only me and Ian who knew anything.

I told the others that they needed to get the answers right, but they clearly weren’t listening.

And despite our best efforts, we came up five points short of the winners in third place.

I’m allowed a night off every now and then. And my show isn’t called How To Win Every Pub Quiz, meaning I can continue to perform it. Still, not winning does sting.

After the quiz, I decided I decided to go and look for some kiwis.

It had been raining, which fortunately meant that there weren’t as many kiwi spotters out as usual. The rule is that the more kiwi spotters are out, the fewer kiwis will be as they’ll get scared off.

Two minutes walk up the hill from my hostel, there’s a rugby pitch that I was told was a decent place for spotting them.

With no torch and just using my phone, I was going to find it tricky. I stayed very still for a couple of minutes and kept listening out noises and looking for moving shadows.

I thought I could see a small shadow moving, so walked closer to it. And there it was, a genuine wild kiwi.

Normal torch lights blind kiwis, which is why people use red lights when going out spotting. So I shined my phone light at my feet for a bit of visibility and moved a little closer. This then got the kiwi’s attention and he started coming towards me. I kept backing away, as I wasn’t sure if he was curious by the moving light or about to launch an attack with that hard beak. In hindsight, I’m fairly sure it was a defensive manoeuvre to kick me off his turf.

In any case, it was a privilege to see such a rare and legendary animal up so close.

Kiwis might be endangered, but they’re feisty little creatures. This was proven a couple of minutes later when another kiwi – presumably a male – appeared and a fight ensued in the bushes.

I was originally planning to stay on Stewart Island for four nights. However, finding out the hostel I was staying in only had two toilets spooked me enough to reduce this by a night.

As with most things I get worried about, the reality never turns out to be as bad as my head has been preparing for.

It was a small hostel and many people would leave very early in the morning, mostly to go hiking. As a result, I never had to queue for the toilet once.

Worrying and thinking of alternatives is one of my brain’s coping mechanisms.

Another example of this also on Stewart Island when my phone was playing up. For some unknown reason, I couldn’t access my phone settings. I took the most obvious course of action and went for Restore to Factory Settings.

When a blank screen then greeted me, I thought I may have to make the journey home without instant access to flight details, addresses of accommodation, or train tickets.

Thankfully, someone also staying at the hostel was a developer of Android apps and he fixed it.

I’m now in Christchurch, where I’ll be flying home from in four days time. I’m hoping these plans don’t get changed.

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Wellington

I checked out of my horrendous hostel on Monday and don’t think I’ve ever felt the same level of euphoria when I’ve left other places.

I booked into somewhere around the corner with similarly bad reviews. The main reason is that I have an ensuite and don’t have to share it with 30 other people.

It could easily pass for decent student digs. While it’s not exactly perfect and the kitchen between eight rooms doesn’t have any saucepans, it’s pretty much five-star compared with the last place.

Also on Monday, I went to a place called Zealandia. It’s a nature reserve covering 225 hectare of forest, all on the outskirts of Wellington.

They’re using it to increase populations of endangered birds and native trees. So it’s surrounded by a high perimeter fence to keep out rats, ferrets, cats and other mammals brought here from overseas that might be partial to eating a bird or two.

As a result of this high fence and all the greenery, it has a Jurassic Park feel to it. Thankfully, there’s nothing in there that eats people or anything that will spawn mediocre sequels.

I really enjoyed walking around there for most of the day and discovering stuff.

It was established in the early 1990s and despite this being my third visit to Wellington, I don’t know how I wasn’t aware of it previously. I’ve explored a lot more of Wellington than I have before this time. Staying in a horrible hostel was certainly motivation enough to get out and about, and it also helped that I’ve not been hungover all the time.

Bagpiper update. In my fifth separate city on this trip, I heard the bagpipes. This time, I tracked down the bagpiper. He claims he hasn’t been following me around on my trip, but I’m not sure I believe him.

I’m writing this on my phone as I hear his music. There is a something I find oddly soothing in bagpipes.

I suspect the Fringe Gods dispatched him here after I got my show application sorted for another Edinburgh. I did it in an internet cafe, using a customised version of Word that had been set up for Chinese speakers. Editing wasn’t the easiest thing to do when the computer kept wanting to add Chinese characters. But I eventually got it done.

Tomorrow I head to Invercargill for a night, then over to Stewart Island. It will be the furthest it’s possible to get from home, excluding Antarctica. 

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NZ Fringe 2020 – Show four

Audience numbers for last night’s show thankfully picked up a bit. And while hundreds of people were lining the streets with the Wellington Pride parade, I managed to get around 30 people in.

The audience were great again. Although I would have liked a few more people in through the door, I’ve been very lucky with the people who have come through said door this run.

As it worked out, I actually ended up selling fewer tickets with each succesive show. This is a handy parallel with my last four Edinburgh runs, where each year’s tally is lower than the last. If the coronavirus is still widespread by August, then this record will almost certainly continue.

I would say that I’m not over here for the money, but it’s simply not true. Based on two shows last year, I thought I would make double the amount from four shows this time. Now I no longer have a full-time job, I need all the money I can get. Expectations ruin everything.

Unfortunately, I only made marginally more than last year.

Nevertheless, all the shows went well and it’s given me an excuse to come back to New Zealand again. Smaller audiences also meant I could have more fun riffing and dicking about with less admin to worry about. That’s very much how the show was forged and it is ultimately where I feel most comfortable.

As I have said many times over the years, I’ve always found failure easier to handle than success. Mainly because I’ve experienced more failure than success. But there’s no pressure or expectation that comes with failure. You just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on without worrying about sustaining anything.

It’s just as well I’m putting together a new show then.

It’s actually a relief that I won’t be doing Dunedin Fringe. I don’t think it’s healthy to compulsively check sales figures multiple times a day and then getting frustrated that the numbers haven’t increased.

And on another positive note, I have one night left in the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in.

I won’t miss being woken up by my next door neighbour having lengthily phone calls with his partner on loud speaker, who sounds much like one of those garbling adults in Charlie Brown.

Tomorrow morning, I checkout of this dump and will never return. I may even steal a knife and fork out of spite.

They say a week is a long time in politics. It turns out its also true when staying in horrendous accommodation.

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NZ Fringe 2020 – Show three

I’m writing this while I’m waiting for my washing in a laundrette.

My hostel does have a washing machine, but I wouldn’t trust it based on everything else in that place.

Although it’s probably going to cost me twice as much at this laundrette, it at means that I can avoid spending time in that awful hostel and my clothes hopefully won’t come out smelling like rotten flesh. Actually, mouldy peanut butter is a far worse smell. So I will go with that instead. Just two more nights, just two more nights…

Onto show-related matters, I think I had about 36 people in last night. So, just over half full. I’ve never known an instance where the Wednesday and Thursday shows are busier than the ones on Friday and Saturday. But this is the situation I find myself in.

Attendances have been down across all my shows. I’m obviously not going to blame my lack or promo when I can blame other factors.

They were another good audience who all seemed to really enjoy it, with many saying nice things afterwards.

It’s my final show of the run tonight. At the moment, it’s looking like it’ll be the quietest. But it is a Saturday and people are around. And as I often say on here, you never truly know how something is going to go until it actually begins.