ARFOE versus a DeLorean

I’m in a reflective mood. Perhaps it’s down to Back to the Future day, which I’ve spent marvelling at the thousands of hoverboards nobody has. More likely it’s because I finally finished the first draft of ARFOE not so long ago. Finishing a first draft is like riding a non-hovering skateboard into a kerb: it stops, and you keep going. I’m typing, I’m typing, I’m typing, and then I’m not, I’m just being carried along by momentum with my typing fingers flapping at the air. And soon (in three weeks?) the hard work begins, of battering that draft into shape. So I’ve been wandering, and doodling.

I’m writing this in the bar of my old college, Downing. A curious experience, not least because I rarely crossed its threshold when I was an undergraduate at the turn of the 1990s. The bar itself now opens to the public as a Costa franchise during the day, because money. And of course everyone looks twelve apart from the rugby players, who could pass for fourteen.

Someone mugging for what I am apparently obliged to call a selfie made me think about how photography has changed since my non-bald days. Today’s undergraduates can likely trace themselves visually almost daily from birth through college — and barring a collapse of civilisation, until death. Today’s technology will only improve and become more widespread, with an ever-shrinking ability to opt out. Anonymity, privacy and secrecy will retreat to ever-smaller niches available only to those with ever-deeper pockets.

And some of today’s undergraduates will one day want to become politicians. Society — by which I mean the newspapers — will have to grow up a little to allow that. (Confidential to self: maybe a St Paul’s College student?)

In contrast, barely any visual record of my time at college exists, to my knowledge. The more distant those days become the more I regret this. I have my matriculation photo: I’m a small blob in a suit and gown amongst other small blobs in suits and gowns. There’s one of me at my college May Ball, again in a suit, a few days before I graduated. I have a few graduation photos. I’m squinting in the sun, and I’m still in a suit.

Somewhere there’s a photo of a small group of us taken in my student room a few hours after our final exam. We’re cheersing the camera with something fizzy. I’m wearing a chunky-knit white jumper. I don’t know why: it was June. I wore it for the three hours of the exam. I wore it for the rest of the day. I never wore it again.

Would I want a photo of me on stage at the Cambridge Union, in late 1988, having been pulled out of the audience by a hypnotist? Perhaps. I was given some plastic specs and told they let me see everyone naked. They didn’t, but I went along with it.

Would I want a photo of me playing korfball for the university? Absolutely. I scored a terrific goal at an away game at UEA in Norwich twenty-five years ago next week, NOT THAT I’M COUNTING. (I believe that was the trip during which (a) I managed to lose some authentic non-cheap Cambridge University branded tracksuit bottoms and (b) someone noticed me staring at an underdressed attractive gentleman in the changing room and I brazened it out and for the avoidance of doubt these two facts are not linked.)

You know, just a few more photos of me as an undergrad in college, and not in a suit or a jumper I’d never wear again, would be nice.

I worry that without a photographic record, I’ll forget these things. Time scuffs and rubs at each day’s mental pencil jottings, leaving only the deep emotional scratches of utter clarity. The final seconds of melancholy sitting on my desk in my third-year room, newly graduated, about to leave for the last time. The ludicrous, irrational bitterness at not being selected for the Varsity korfball match. Watching TV as the first Gulf war kicked off, unable to work from the adrenaline shakes. Learning Margaret Thatcher had resigned and wanting to run and tell everyone, and instead queuing mutely to pay my poll tax. Plucking a porter’s note from my pigeonhole asking me to phone home, and knowing it meant my grandmother had died. The first minutes alone in my first-year room, trying not to panic.

Maybe I shouldn’t visit college again for a while. Or maybe I should.

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A child of Thatcher

I am, I suppose, one of Thatcher’s children.

I came of age during the Thatcher years. I had just turned ten when she was elected in 1979, and by the time she left Downing Street in tears in 1990 I was in my final year at university. Those eleven years changed Britain and British politics, probably forever: Falklands, unions, IRA bombs, miners’ strike, Gorbachev, city deregulation, Section 28, Poll Tax.

But I’m not going to rehearse all that messy business. That road is well travelled and sprinkled with pot holes.

All of us who grew up during those tumultuous years are still affected by them — whichever side of her policies you were on. We remember the rise of what was then called alternative comedy, and is now called comedy: Not the Nine O’Clock News, Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, French and Saunders, and the rest. We remember teachers’ strikes and bonus days off. We remember endless TV adverts for about-to-be-privatised businesses (“If you see Sid, tell him”) and the rise of the city boys flashing their cash and hefting their mobile phone bricks. We remember the god-awful fashion.

But this is nothing new. Every generation is shaped by its predecessor: vowing not to repeat its mistakes, vowing to preserve its legacy, and then becoming crippled by the tawdry compromises of reality.

Those born ten years before me were children of the seventies: flower power, power cuts, flared trousers, Ted Heath, Who Governs Britain?, two elections in a year, Harold Wilson’s surprise retirement, the Winter of Discontent. They became, more or less, in charge when Labour swept to power in 1997. Just as David Cameron and the Bullingdon club now run the country, recreating the eighties in their own Oxford image with one arm tied behind their backs by the Lib Dems. And just as those born in the late seventies whose politics are stamped by Major’s Britain, Back to Basics, sleaze, the first Gulf War, and then the inevitable Labour landslide and the death of Diana, will take power in another half-generation.

And so it goes.

I remember vividly when then-Mrs Thatcher resigned, finally. I was in my college room — less than a mile from where I’m writing this — sitting at my desk, my TV keeping me company. It was about 9.30am. There was a newsflash.

I felt a strange exhilaration: after months of commas and semi-colons there was at last a full stop. A new sentence.

Major, Hurd or Heseltine? What would it be like having a male prime minister?

I told the only person I could find: the bedder (Cambridge-speak for cleaner) hoovering outside my room. I wanted to watch the rolling news — a novelty then — but had an errand to run: I had to pay my poll tax.

I queued along with two dozen others in a sterile council office, snakes shuffling toward glass screens to pay obeisance. Inside, I buzzed. I wanted to shout it out: everything has changed! Back then there was no Twitter, no text messaging, few mobile phones, and I suspected only a small minority had heard the news. At least, they didn’t look like they’d heard the news. I said nothing.

I paid, knowing that whoever replaced Mrs Thatcher would replace the poll tax too.

Everything changed, but nothing changed.

And so it goes.

Review: Comedy Rules

comedy-rules-coverPart-autobiography, part-tutorial, part-ramble, Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes, Prime Minister is Jonathan Lynn’s look back at his career in acting and directing and in particular in comedy writing, and it’s full of excellent advice for those aiming to succeed him. The rules of the title pepper the book — there are 150 in all, over 200 pages — and range from the relatively obvious to the insightful.

For example, rule 35: It is hazardous to your career to make sexist jokes about women. Not a surprise, though somehow it still needs repeating. And then by contrast a few pages later, rule 39: If a band — or film crew — laugh loudly at a joke, you should probably cut it. Because, he says, “the band will only laugh at any new line which is a variation of the original.” And then there’s rule 98: Beware a phone call from the Inland Revenue, even if it’s an invitation to lunch.

Despite the title, these aren’t so much rules as lightly educational anecdotes: lessons he’s learned over the years through sometimes bitter experience. We skip between the decades, from his student days to more recent times as a film director and screenwriter, and back. Every story is funny, enlightening and well told, and occasionally guest-starring comedy gods such as John Cleese or Steve Martin.

Quite possibly my favourite story follows rule 117: Try to resist if the Prime Minister wants to join your writing team. If you remember the cringeworthy “sketch” Margaret Thatcher wrote while PM featuring the two main characters from Yes, Prime Minister, you’ll know what this anecdote is about.

There’s poignancy too. Lynn describes working on the play Loot with Leonard Rossiter, a masterful comic actor but a perfectionist who could be difficult to deal with. The play was a huge success and they became friends, and then Rossiter died suddenly: in his dressing room, from an aneurism, during a performance. Lynn includes the eulogy he gave at the funeral.

Lynn’s one of the greats behind the camera of post-war British comedy, up there with Galton and Simpson, John Sullivan, Eric Sykes, Muir and Norden, and so on, and Comedy Rules is a fantastic memoir. Recommended.