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Back in the studio

Yesterday, I met up with my old mate Rich Shillitoe for the first time in month to work on the much-anticipated Ross Kemp: The Musical. And by “much-anticipated”, I mean by me.

Since our last session in October, I have listened to our opening number countless times. And I really fancied having a crack at recording my own version after what I considered to be several successful attempts while driving.

Aside from in my car, I haven’t done a massive amount of singing in public before. I did attend choir practice at church on one occasion when I was about eight. I was actually thinking up ways I could get away with miming and my main motive was money. But I got scared when one of the elderly ladies tried to measure me up for a cassock and never returned.

At primary school, I accidentally sang a brief solo over the instrumental part in a song during a summer concert and made sure to finish the chorus. Then about 13 years later in the first year of uni, I grabbed the microphone and sang the chorus of We Are the Champions during karaoke in our campus bar when I felt the group I was up there with weren’t putting in enough effort. And of course, after a few pints in 2010, I sang Bohemian Rhapsody with a live backing band at a rockaoke party and people genuinely enjoyed it.

Also at uni, I was the lead singer in a hypothetical band with two mates. We never wrote any songs, or even played together. But the band existed in theory.

My teenage years were when I wanted to be the frontman of a band. This was despite not being able to really play any instruments to any particular level of skill. Then again, this has hardly stopped many well-known frontmen from making their fortunes. I actually thought about forming a band with Rich when I was 17 or 18. We would have been called Contrasting Souls. He’d be dressed in black and I’d be dressed in white. I never actually told him of these plans and think it’s probably for the best.

Yesterday, it turns out that Rich wasn’t impressed with my vocal efforts. What soon became apparent is how much work I’m going to have to do on my vocals if there’s any chance of me landing the leading role in my own musical. As ridiculous sentences that I’ve written over the years on here go, that one is well up there.

At present, my breathing technique is non-existent. If I were to sing about eight songs a day for three and a half weeks at Edinburgh Fringe, there would be a good chance I’d lose my voice within a matter of days. Then there’s my history of mild throat issues that are caused by sinus problems. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be a rock star after all.

But then after yesterday, I thought I could direct and produce the musical and have a smaller role. It would also allow me to oversee the production to make sure everything’s running properly, which I couldn’t do it I was on stage for most of it. There’s also less chance of me burning out within the first week. Another plus side is that I will no longer have to shave my head. And maybe, just maybe, it would also give me enough time to also do a certain quiz-based show.

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Back on the road

This week, it felt like I was heading to a gig. And by that, I mean that I had to get to the motorway during rush hour.

But it wasn’t to a gig. I was on a rescue mission. My sister’s partner had been up in the Lake District with his parents for the weekend and their car had broken down on the M5, so I had to go and pick him up while to take him back to his house in Bristol while his parents waited to be towed home to Plymouth.

To mark the occasion, there were delays; albeit nowhere near on the scale of getting out of Manchester or on the M6. And it got me thinking.

When I was in London, I always envied comics with cars. Or as they’re known in the trade: “a London driver”. If you have a car, live in London and are a half-decent comic, then you instantly get more gigs because you can drive other comedians to gigs – usually the headliner.

But when I moved to Manchester, and was thus a Manchester driver, I found that I actually really hated driving to gigs. I’ve been thinking about how many different stresses were involved with the drive before I even got to a gig. The first stress was getting back to my flat from the city centre. There weren’t normally any delays on the trams, unless I had a gig to get to.

Stress number two was getting my car out of the driveway on one of the tightest imaginable roads, with cars often parked on both sides. What made this worse was if the arse bag who lived next door was blocking me in and was out when knocked on his door to ask him to move it. Thankfully, this only happened once. But even without that, it was often a really tight road if enough people had got back from work.

The third stress was getting out of Manchester, with delays and congestion on seemingly all routes out of the city. Then there was the myriad 50 mile an hour limits, reduced lane sizes and speeding lorries.

Stress number four was motorway driving during rush hour, or the winding roads of the Peak District. Snake’s Pass is one of the most terrifying places to drive in the world at night, and is even worse during bad weather.

Stress number five was finding somewhere to park when I got to the gig. And stress number six was the general race against the clock to get there on time.

So by the time I’d endured all these stresses, it was time to go on stage. It’s not surprising that many of the gigs I did during this time didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

But that wasn’t the end of the stresses. The seventh stress was getting home again, battling motorway lane closures, diversions along one-track back roads, and just trying to stay awake.

Then the eighth stress was parking when I got back to my flat. There was enough room in the driveway outside my flat for two cars out of the three flats. And there was also technically enough room for the arse bag next door to park on the driveway outside his house. Unfortunately, he almost always strayed over to our driveway, thus depriving one of the people of their parking space – because he was an arse bag. Then getting back and finding there was nowhere to park meant trying to turn the car around in the ridiculously tight road, with mere millimetres to play with to avoid scratching one of the parked cars.

With all these stresses encountered regularly, it’s little wonder that in the summer of 2018 that there was what felt like an apocalypse raging on in my bowels.

Anyway, that went on a bit. I didn’t have to worry about most of these stresses for my rescue mission, where I was rewarded with beer for my troubles. And it just so happened to give me a chance to visit the highly regarded Gloucester Services for the first time. Service stations are a big part of the travelling comedian’s life and Gloucester Services is a firm favourite for many comics. But as I only need to come off at pretty much the next junction, I never had a reason to visit before.

I have now, and I can confirm that they’re really good. Although my heart will always be with Tebay Services, which always felt like a post-Edinburgh treat just before returning to the real world.

Visiting services stations for the sake of it isn’t something I intend on doing, although I may consider it if I need a new hobby if I ever permanently turn my back on comedy and feel there’s a lack of overpriced food and petrol in my life.

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Much-needed structure

This week involved some much-needed structure. And by that, I mean putting together something for my hops to climb.

For some time, they’ve been climbing bamboo canes without anywhere to go once they reach the top. Fortunately, they’ve only grown just over a foot and have another three feet or so of bamboo before they run out of room. So it was hardly an urgent race against time.

I ordered an obelisk online, having previously never even been aware of the word. Essentially, it’s a four-sided, free-standing trellis thing. I thought it would arrive fully formed, but it turned out to be
in pieces and with limited instructions.

Previously, the extent of my assembly skills was largely limited to a Meccano set I got for Christmas when I was about 11. I made things for a few months, before packing everything away to gather dust forevermore.

Assembling the obelisk was not without its complications, by which I mean that it kept falling. But after about two hours and a lot of swearing under my breath, it was finished and stands at about 1.8 metres. And it is still standing to this day, albeit four days later.

I’m now trying and encourage some of the hops to climb onto the obelisk. The plan is to use this as a base and then build and a taller network of bamboo canes and twine, possibly even branching out using actual branches of the nearby sycamore tree.

In other news, gigs are running again but I’m not actively pursuing them at the moment. I need to get a steady run of them together to avoid the stop-start situation that always ends up being frustrating. And that won’t be for a while. But by the time I am doing gigs again, my hops will be a lot taller and may even be ready to harvest.

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First dose

I have now had my first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. And more importantly, I am about three months closer to getting a haircut.

I had my appointment in Cirencester, where I once worked as a newspaper reporter. The jab centre was near where I used to park every day. Unfortunately, all the spaces were taken. I pulled into a public car park, parked up, then looked in my wallet to find that the only coins I had were New Zealand Dollars. It nicely sums up how long it’s been since I used any cash.

I turned around and went back the way I came, in the hope that there would now be a space. And there it was. I headed to the jab centre, looking a lot different to when I left the paper almost exactly 12 years ago. I am now about 10kg heavier, with long hair and a beard, as well as also wearing medical gloves and a face mask to complete the physical transformation.

I knew my old reporter patch so well that I had to ask someone for directions on where exactly I had to go to get my jab.

The whole vaccine process was really well run and all credit goes to the NHS and local services. The nurse I spoke to was working a 12-hour shift. I hope they all get a massive pay rise for everything they’ve done.

I am now part of Team Pfizer. In terms of side-effects of the jab, I haven’t felt many. My jabbed arm was a little sort the next day and it hurt when I listed it above my head. But I’m not sure if the feelings of tiredness and sinus pains are the effects of the jab, or just that I’ve not been sleeping that well lately and have hayfever. In any case, I don’t feel anything out of the ordinary.

I am now a step closer to immunity, a step closer to some sense of normality, and a step closer to finally getting a haircut.

What I don’t know is when my microchip will start operating. I also don’t know whether it’ll be Bill or Melinda Gates who will have custody of me after their divorce settlement.

In comedy news, I now have my second How To Win A Pub Quiz show booked for this year. In October, I will be returning to Swansea. More details will probably be tweeted soon.

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Booked in

I have my first dose of the Covid vaccine booked this week. It sums up the strange Covid times in which we live that getting an injection is considered to be exciting.

And it also sums up how little is actually happening in my life at the moment that I feel the need to write about something that isn’t particularly interesting and also hasn’t even happened yet. But as I describe this, my word count increases slowly but surely so I can reach the magic 250-word mark.

This is the minimum word count anything I write on here has to be. This entire site started after a mate from school noticed my challenge on Tumblr of writing 250 words every day for a year and offered to host it for me.

The reason I chose 250 words in 2010 is because it was the shortest acceptable length of a page lead news story in my reporter days.

And that ties nicely into my vaccine appointment. Because it turns out that I’m getting it done in Cirencester, which is the very same town I used to work as a reporter. In fact, the centre where I’m getting the jab is mere metres from where I used to park my car almost every day when I would often have to rush to get into the office to be on time.

The difference this time will be that if I am a few minutes late for the appointment, I am unlikely to be shouted at by the person in charge.

Tune in next week to find out what the jab was like. If excitement like that doesn’t result in a spike in traffic, nothing will. 287 words. Still got it.

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A sort of plan

I may have a plan, or at least something that is starting to resemble a plan.

Following on from last week when I was toying with the idea of sticking around back home for another year, I have developed this further.

Over the next year, I have decided that I will finally get around to writing all the things that have been in my head for months or years. And by this, I don’t mean angry letters to the local newspaper or complaints to companies I don’t like. Plus, Burton has now closed all its stores.

Anyway, what I mean is that I will get around to writing all ideas I have for scripts and other stories that I’ve either not finished writing or even started.

In Lockdown 1, I finally finished a Doctor Who script that had been in my head since 2007. I’ve since even found old drawings I did back then of what the monsters will look like. I still have no idea where to send the script, but that’s not the most important thing with this. The most important thing was finishing it in the first place.

I don’t know if anything will come of any of these ideas. But I can guarantee that nothing will happen if I don’t do anything with them.

I realised that I may not have this much freedom and time again to write all these projects before I get back into the world of work. In the first lockdown, I didn’t know exactly how long it would last. And I still don’t, but I now at least have an idea of what I’m going to do with the time.

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Some progress

I returned to the script for my musical project yesterday for the first time in several weeks. I’d become stuck. I knew where I wanted to get to; I just wasn’t quite sure how to get there.

As with most writing challenges, they often start to become easier when you actually sit down and try to do something about it. I’ve now made much more progress than I have in a few months. But when the progress in those few months was nothing, it doesn’t set a high bar. Still, it’s good to have done something with it.

The original plan was to take the show to Edinburgh Fringe this year. Then a certain straw-headed twat cocked everything up for a second and third time, then the pandemic soared out of control. Not only did this pretty much end my plans for performing the run of shows in August 2021, but it also meant I couldn’t go to Rich’s house for more musical collaborations.

Admittedly, in the grander scheme of things in the pandemic, I’ve gotten off pretty lightly if it’s only caused me inconvenience and irritation.

The plan is to now take the show up to Edinburgh in 2022. Everything
should have gotten back to somewhere close to normal by then.

And I’ll be going around Rich’s house again for another studio session. As Rich now only lives about ten minutes drive up the road, I’m now wondering if it’s best to make sure I get the project written and polished before I move back to London. And that now might not be for at least another year.

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Freelancing

It has been said that if you’re a freelance journalist then you’re either worrying that you don’t have enough work, or you’re worrying that you have taken on too much.

I can say that this summary is definitely accurate. Freelance journalism has now been my main source of income for more than a year. And fortunately, I’m getting just enough to get by. When I got back from New Zealand, I thought the work would dry up and was fully prepared for my third stint at a supermarket.

Despite spending years wishing I could do comedy full-time, the pandemic has made me grateful that I do have a backup. I’ve been working as a journalist in some capacity – written or editing – for more than 13 years, but there are times when I still question if I know what I’m doing and ask myself: “Hang on, is this actually any good?”

However, the commissions keep coming – albeit mostly from people I’ve worked with in previous companies. Although I have recently also been commissioned to write something for someone I don’t know and have been offered other work since. So it would appear that I do know what I’m doing. And it must be good – or at least passable.

Freelancing is far from a secure income and I’m earning much less than when I was working full-time. But I’m enjoying the variety and the flexibility. It’s not enough income to allow me to move back to London, but it’ll do until things start to get back to something resembling normality. And freelancing is certainly a more stable income than comedy.

Plus, freelancing means I can continue to take my dog for long walks every day without anyone wondering why I’m taking so long to respond to emails and start suspecting I may not be at my desk. I couldn’t possibly say if I also used to do this when I did have a full-time job and was working from home. And no one can prove otherwise.

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The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

As I have already been writing about TV shows I’ve been watching, I may as well continue. I finished watching the latest MCU show Disney+, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Of all the Marvel Disney+ series announced, this is the one I was looking forward to the most. And it was very much as I expected. It was solid, actiony stuff with plenty of quips and character development for Bucky and Sam. And I enjoyed it.

Unlike WandaVision, there weren’t as many surprises and twists. And I didn’t feel the need to each week to call a friend afterwards to try and get our heads around what the hell was going on, but then I was hardly expecting to have to do that for WandaVision.

Anthony Mackie was great. And by the end, it felt like he had well and truly earned his place as the new Captain America. I really liked his suit, but would have liked a bit more a Wakanda-style look considering that’s where it was made. Also, get this man a helmet. Otherwise, he’s going to get a serious head injury.

I’m now not quite sure where Bucky’s meant to go now. By the end of the series, everything had pretty much been wrapped up for the character. He’s 104 years old, so perhaps he’s going to enjoy some retirement, or do the Steve Rogers things of going back in time to have a normal life.

Baron Zemo’s return was a lot of fun and definitely elevated the character from Civil War.

The new Cap, John Walker, was a great character. He wasn’t a total villain, but also certainly wasn’t a hero. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do with the character in future. And I would also very much be up for a film focusing on Isaiah Bradley.

What didn’t quite work was the show’s villains, bringing back a traditional from the MCU Phase 1.

Many people have commented on how the Flagsmashers weren’t the best and I agree with this. They never really felt like much of a threat, Super Soldier serum and all. There are rumours that there was a pandemic storyline central to them was cut as it was a little too close to home, but I don’t know.

The Flagsmashers being led by someone considerably younger than everyone else in the group was never really explained and there was nothing we saw in the show that justified it. Presumably, the older actors were chosen for martial arts skills more than anything else. So it was a bit like veterans from Power Rangers being led by someone from Byker Grove. Everything just felt a bit off, which is very rare for Marvel.

What would have been better was if the whole group was much younger. Say, 17 and 18 year olds who were aged about 12-13 when Thanos snapped his fingers and had 50% of everything taken away from them. The age of the leader would have made more sense this way, and it would have also been more shocking when John Walker caved in the chest of a teenager than a fully grown man.

And then there was the Power Broker, and it was pretty easy to predict their identity. Although who is she working with? There is still some intrigue left there, so that’s a good thing.

Regardless, I enjoyed the series. Even if it didn’t get everything right, there was enough good stuff in there to enjoy. It’s always a good sign when a series ends that you want to see what happens next with the characters and I am looking forward to seeing where their adventures take them.

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Edinburgh Fringe is happening?

The organisers of Edinburgh Fringe have announced this week that they’re cracking on with proceedings. I can understand why they’re doing it, as it is kind of their thing and all.

The fact that they’re not printing a paper programme suggests that they’re not exactly confident that it will go ahead as planned. They’re planning on running online shows, as well as performances in the actual physical realm.

Whatever does go ahead in the real world will almost recently require some form of social distancing, which as I’ve said before on here will wipe out large swathes of venues. And the shows being planned outdoors are entirely dependent on the Scottish weather. And let’s just say Scottish rain doesn’t exactly hold back when it gets going.

I also don’t think the organisers have given enough thought on whether punters will feel comfortable going and mixing in and around with thousands of strangers from all over the place, especially with mutant variants of Covid appearing frequently.

Even if the entire country is vaccinated by that point, there will almost inevitably still be outbreaks of the virus one way or another.

Then another factor is that if performers are up there for the full month, they will be suffering from weakened immune systems. By the final week comes around, I am almost always running on empty. Edinburgh Lurgy is a very real thing. Combine that with Covid and you have a massive problem on your hands.

There are a couple of indicators for how a festival in the time of Covid could look.

In Perth this year, the fringe festival there had to shut down completely for a few days when there was an outbreak of Covid recorded in the city. Shows did restart again when they managed to track down and isolated whoever it was and who they’d been in contact with. It’s easy to see something similar happening during Edinburgh, albeit on a far more problematic scale.

And at NZ Fringe in Wellington, venues were running with reduced capacities. And Australia and New Zealand are countries with significantly better records on controlling the diseases.

We will just have to wait and see what unfolds.