Books

Comedy is subjective. So is writing. I’ve just come across a 45-minute video I felt I had to share. It skirts around both subjects and comes up with some savoury little insights. The video will not please everybody – the comments below it are testament to that – but anyone who shares my vague interest in the psychology of comedy will find it fascinating.

Like him or love him, Stewart Lee is a man who knows his allium from his Elba.

The talk begins slowly and in a slightly rambling, self-conscious manner. Stick with it and your patience will be rewarded. Writer, comedian and (dare I say it?) intellectual Stewart Lee gives a very interesting talk to Oxford University students about his comedy and the writing of it. It’s a reprise of a talk he gave on a writers’ day in February at the University that wasn’t recorded first time around. The recording is straightforward and low-tech, with some gooey fades.

Lee is entirely open and reveals much about his stand-up technique. There’s a fantastic sequence in which he opens up the box and explains how he puts together a stand up show: character, mood and how the “flip” comes about at the end. I’ll never be a comedian, I’ll never be much of a writer, but I can admire the technique.

Charles Dickens’ characters fall into two main categories: the memorable and the totally unforgettable. I can think of no other author who has created fictional characters the equal of vivid Victorians such as (in no particular order): The Artful Dodger, Smike, Joe Gargery, Fagin, Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber, Sam Weller, Daniel Quilp, Mr Dick, Bill Sykes, Magwitch, Frederick Dorrit, Mr Merdle, Mrs Gamp, and, of course, all the title characters. And that’s just from memory, if I had a crib-sheet in front of me, the list would run to dozens, if not hundreds, of names.

I was halfway through a post about Racism in Football (hopefully following not too far behind…) when I spotted a reminder that today (February 7th) is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. How could I possibly let that pass? I have been enchanted by his work ever since I first watched those atmospheric black and white Sunday teatime adaptations on the BBC, back in the monochrome 1960s. Although I’ve nothing against full colour broadcasting, there is something about black & white telly that sprinkles even more magic dust over Dickens’ characters and storylines. The same goes for those hugely atmospheric David Lean film adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist of the 1940s. For some reason we didn’t touch Dickens for our school exams – no shortage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, though – and I had to discover Dickens’ writing because I wanted to, not because I had to.

For the past couple of months, the British media has been on Dickens overload. Every celebrity from Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins to Mariella Frostrup and Aled Jones have offered up their praise and opinions on the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. There’s a genuine risk of over-kill and a sad realisation that in a year’s time there’ll probably be no Dickens at all.

That’s the way media people think. No one has ever given me a realistic explanation as to why newspapers, magazines, radio and TV don’t “do” something unless they have an event to “hang it on”. I’d find Charles Dicken just as interesting 199-and-a-half years after his birth as exactly 200, but maybe I’m odd.

There’s a theory that suggests that Charles Dickens’ characters and brilliant – if occasionally over-convoluted – plots were so well-crafted because he had to write them in instalments. The theory falls down when you realise that many other authors wrote to the same constraints and (sadly, perhaps) their work has grown ivy and perished over the years. I think we just have to admit that Dickens’s survived is because they were so extraordinary to start with. Take this extract from Little Dorrit:

An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.

‘Nothing changed,’ said the traveller, stopping to look round. ‘Dark and miserable as ever. A light in my mother’s window, which seems never to have been extinguished since I came home twice a year from school, and dragged my box over this pavement. Well, well, well!’

He went up to the door, which had a projecting canopy in carved work of festooned jack-towels and children’s heads with water on the brain, designed after a once-popular monumental pattern, and knocked. A shuffling step was soon heard on the stone floor of the hall, and the door was opened by an old man, bent and dried, but with keen eyes.

He had a candle in his hand, and he held it up for a moment to assist his keen eyes. ‘Ah, Mr Arthur?’ he said, without any emotion, ‘you are come at last? Step in.’

Mr Arthur stepped in and shut the door.

There’s no room here to offer a Charles Dickens biography, but enough space not to ignore the basic facts.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire on February 7th, 1812. It was a memorable year all round: poet Robert Browning and the architect Augustus Pugin shared the same birth-year; the metric system was first adopted in France; Napoleon invaded Russia (later commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture); and Britain went to war with the United States. By the time of his death, 58 years, four months and two days later, Dickens had written 15-and-a-half novels, 6 novellas and numerous shorter pieces.

The biggest selling of all his novels is A Tale of Two Cities. Don’t ask me why. The book with the most adaptations is A Christmas Carol, possible because Christmas does come around once every year…

The BBC’s Big Read survey of Britain’s favourite novels, undertaken in 2003, contained five from Dickens in the Top 100. They were: Great Expectations (17), David Copperfield (34), A Christmas Carol (47), A Tale of Two Cities (63) and Bleak House (79). Dickens and Terry Pratchett shared the distinction of having the most works in the first 100. (I wonder if that would be repeated in even 20 years from now.) For me, the big surprises were that Bleak House did so well (a clear two years before the ground-breaking BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance), and that Oliver Twist did so badly – only managing to scrape in at number 182.

You would have thought that with all the adaptations, in particular Lionel Bart’s spirited musical would have propelled Oliver Twist into the top 150 at the very least. It’s not as if the storyline – including the memorable line: “Please sir, I want some more!” – isn’t well known or that Charles Dickens’ characters in Oliver Twist are not up to standard. My theory is that we prefer our Dickens a little darker… preferably in black and white.

For the first part of the story, read “Rabbit: Chas and Dave Reunion – Gertcha! (Part 1)” – click here

After Glastonbury 2005, all went well for a number of years. I did an average of 15-20 shows a year with Chas & Dave: most made me money but a few lost. In retrospect I suppose they were playing just too many gigs in London, but every time I tried to ease up, Barry would sell a show to someone else, so I kept up the pressure. Their fee had trebled since that first show, but the audiences had doubled, so it was still worth doing.

Then tragedy struck. Dave Peackock’s lovely wife, Sue, fell ill. She was a genuinely happy woman who had never smoked a day in her life but she succumbed to lung cancer. Just when we thought she was on the mend, Sue grew weak and finally passed away on July 4th, 2009. It was a sad time for everybody, especially Dave, who was absolutely devastated. He withdrew from live work with Chas & Dave and for three months, Chas carried on with Micky Burt and a stand-in bass-player.

I called their agent, Barry Collings, in early September, and he told me that Chas was expecting Dave to return in time for the Christmas Beano. So I booked a date at the Electric Ballroom and started to advertise and promote the show.

On September 22, 2009, an important news announcement came out of the blue – at least to me. Aside from the Christmas Beano, I had several shows booked , including two at the 100 Club. I got an email from a friend saying they’d heard on the radio that Chas & Dave had split up, was it true? I didn’t know. I went to the band’s website, which carried an official announcement:

“Following the death of his wife. Dave has decided to call time on touring. All dates already booked and those going forward will be fulfilled by Chas & his band (details here). Dave has been overwhelmed by the huge number of messages of support for him at this difficult time and we say a big thank you to all who got in touch and posted their regards on the web.
“To quote Chas: ‘It’s sad but Rockney will roll on with  Chas & his band’.
“CHAS & HIS BAND are CHAS Piano/Lead Vocals, MICKY BURT on Drums and DARREN JUNIPER Bass Guitar. Darren is the son of an old school friend of Chas, the man who introduced Chas to Dave years ago, a story Chas relates on stage.”

The British public are a funny lot. The Chas & Dave show without Dave wasn’t all that different. It featured the same songs in roughly the same order and they sounded like they did on the records, but for some reason people stopped coming. My first show at the 100 Club billed as “Chas & His Band” drew less than a hundred people.

It was obvious that the Christmas Beano at the 1100-capacity Electric Ballroom could not go ahead. Barry Collings and Chas thought I should go ahead with Chas and His Band. But I knew it was better to lose the money I’d already spent on the show than gamble several thousand more pounds that I was wrong. Promoting is always a gamble, but when you’re betting against your own instincts, experience and knowledge, it’s a hiding to nothing.

I gave it a good go with Chas and His Band – playing the 100 Club shows booked for Chas & Dave, but every one cost me money, including one – on New Year’s Eve at the 100 Club – that lost £4,000. Chas reduced his fees for the shows, but the high overheads and the fact that audiences weren’t showing up, meant that I still lost money. All in all, with the cancelled show and the ones I went ahead with and lost on, I was down the best part of £12,000, which was more than I’d made out of all the Chas and Dave shows in the previous year.

I owed Chas and Dave £6,000. I suggested I deduct a couple of thousand towards the cost of the cancelled Beano and my other losses but this was rejected and I ended up paying them the whole amount, on top of my losses. Barry Collings rang me and said that he thought there was a good chance that Dave would come back – at least for a farewell tour – and when that happened, I could recoup my losses that way.

Nothing happened for a year. Barry kept asking me whether I wanted to put on more shows with Chas & His Band and I kept telling him I couldn’t afford to, which was true. I’d given it a good try but it just didn’t seem to work at the 100 Club. Then, on June 12th, 2010 one of the 100 Club doormen rang me and asked me if I was involved with Chas & Dave’s Reunion Tour. I knew nothing about it. I fired off an email to Barry Collings, asking him what was happening.

He replied within eight minutes to say:

Hi, Chas & Dave are getting together again for one six week final theatre tour March /AprilI have sold the London date to the Indigo 02
Regards, Barry

I emailed back, pointing out that he told me I’d be getting the first call. He replied:

Hi they paid me big money. Otherwise I would have spoken to you regards. Barry

I pointed out that on the deal we’d agreed for the Christmas Beano, if transferred to the 02, Chas & Dave would walk out with very nearly £50,000, if the show sold out– which I believed it would. Were they getting more than that, I asked? No reply.

I emailed Chas. On June 14th he came back and said:

Jim, It was all left to Barry. He is our agent. If you want to get involved, give him a call.

So there it was. I asked if they wanted to do a warm-up at the 100 Club and I was told no. Chas and Dave eventually played 50 shows (31 of them sold out) including 3 at London’s Indigo 02.

It was a bad year for me. The 100 Club was threatened with closure because the owner was finding it hard to pay the rent. It was eventually saved, but by then I was told that the Fridays I had successfully promoted for nearly eight years had been given to someone else who was prepared to taken them on for 52 weeks of the year (I take July and August off to concentrate on the Rhythm Festival). Jeff wanted me to do Sunday nights at the 100 Club, but I had already been approached by he Borderline, a nearby club in central London, and I moved my Friday promotions there.

Then on April 25th, 2011, I was forwarded an email from the 100 Club:

To celebrate the end of their record breaking farewell UK tour and forthcoming live CD release with EMI Records, Chas n Dave perform to their friends, families and diehard fans in a special 100 Club show where all lucky ticket holders will receive a free limited edition live double CD of this final tour show together. The first half will be made up of their 1970’s pub set followed by all their hits from the 80’s, in what is going to be a highly emotional farewell to them on their final tour show together.
TIME: 6.30pm – 11pm
ADMISSION: £27.50 adv + bf (get your tickets now as there is only a limited number left)

Again, it would have been nice to have asked. Or even invited. Apparently I am not counted as part of their “friends, families and diehard fans”.
Gertcha!

Update (18 May, 2011)

A friend who was at the “last ever gig” at the 100 Club and who spoke to Dave, said he was up with working with me again and that another reunion show was not out of the question. Not being one to miss a chance, I sent an email to Chas and Dave’s agent, Barry Collings that read:

Hi, Barry. Any chance of a one-off c&d christmas beano?
Good money for a one-off.
Cheers, Jim (Driver)

He replied:

Hi. Sorry. Already booked at 02 indigo. Regards. Barry

There you go!

Update (30 January, 2012)

Word came back that Chas and Dave were going to do some more shows in 2012. On 23rd January 2012, I emailed Barry Collings and I said:

Hi, Barry. I’d like to do a short little tour with Chas & Dave to “round things off” as I feel I was given a slightly raw deal after I had to swallow the costs of the cancellations (with the promise of first option on a reunion) after Dave left but then wasn’t given a chance to recover any of this when he returned and the O2 offered such a great deal.

We could then all make some money, shake hands and travel our separate ways. Or maybe do it again…

Could I please put an offer in for a Chas & Dave “Back To Their Roots” short tour in May 2012. This would not interfere with the O2 shows and would be fun for everyone to do. It could go one of two ways:

I then went on to list two offers that involved either playing three shows or five shows and offering many thousands of pounds.

Barry replied and said:

Will put these offers to them but i would say very doubtful
Dave has retired aside from one or two major festival dates in the summer and a couple of xmas shows at 02 indigo

On January 30th he came back to me with the answer:

Put your enquiry to the guys but regret that Dave has not changed his mind about semi-retiring
Best Regards
Barry

… apart from the odd music festival and shows at the O2, of course.

I used to be a publisher. Not someone who worked for a big international corporation, mixing with bestselling authors, famous film, TV and sports personalities and their less glamorous ghostwriters, but an important part – or at least I liked to think so – of a one-man operation.

Aside from an army of authors, artists, freelance proof-readers, designers, printing and binding workers, packagers and distributors, independent sales reps and PR prats, I was The Do-Not Press. I battled fearlessly against the publishing and bookselling establishments for ten years before I finally fell, fatally wounded, in 2004. My Waterloo was the Compass Spring Sales Conference. (Don’t ask).

I only mention this, not because I’m about to relate a whole series of publishing horror stories, but because the experience scarred me and changed my book-buying habits for life. Even now, four years, four months and six days after our last book hit the shelves (or not) of Britain’s major bookshops, I cannot bring myself to buy a book from W.H. Smiths or Waterstone’s. (I’m a bit iffy about Blackwell’s, but that’s only because in 1966 Sir Basil Blackwell tried to prevent the UK publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn. I have a long memory).

Whenever I need a book and I’m in central London, I’ll walk past all the fancy Borders, Waterstone’s and whatever and head for Foyle’s in the Charing Cross Road. Disorganised, badly laid out and ineffecient as they might have been back then, (they’ve improved now), at least they stocked almost all of our books – and even sold a few.

Being an independent publisher of some panache, you’d have thought independent bookshops would have been keener than the chains to stock our toothsome output of contemporary fiction and suchlike. Not a bit of it. With a handful of notable exceptions – Newham Bookshop, Murder One, Foyle’s, Housman’s and Bookseller Crow, being the only ones that spring to mind – smaller bookshops tended to avoid us entirely. One even went as far as invoicing me for the fax paper I’d used up notifying him of an impending publication by a local author.

In my experience, most independent booksellers are pompous middle-class twits who are dead keen to stock mountains of what’s on the top of the bestseller charts but will not risk upsetting their clientele by having anything vaguely “interesting” in the building. “Oh, that’s very hard to get,” is a common put-down.

Buying online is even trickier for me. Amazon have everything I need, it’s usually cheaper there than anywhere else, and the service is invariably second to none. And yet I feel guilty about feeding money into a US corporation with a virtual worldwide monopoly. Silly, isn’t it?

I get around this by buying from The Book Depository, whenever I can. An independent British operation (sorry international readers), The Book Depository offers free delivery and prices that undercut even their obese American rival. Plus they push the product of independent British pubishing at every opportunity. Well done, I say.

The Do-Not Press website still gets 100 hits a day and is at http://www.thedonotpress.com

The Book Depository can be found at: http://www.thebookdepository.co.uk