Feeling chilly?

As the mercury drops by several degrees all at once, London breathes out befuddled coffee breath into stark, white thin air.  It’s snowing up north, apparently.  Scotland is deluged with the stuff.  Good news for Santa C’s arrival on the 24th Dec but bad news for those attempting to traverse the Highlands on anything other than a robust pair of skis.  In London, it’s just got that sky-like-a-white-sheet look about it, as it the sky is startled and something interesting is about to take place.  But the national news this morning is that we are in for the coldest, snowest, ice-tingliest winter since 1947, where the only thing that wasn’t rationed was the weather.

According to medical advisers, it’s when the temperature drops to -15 degrees that hospitals start to get seriously overstretched and the older and more physically vulnerable are at risk of dying.  At this point, we can be grateful we don’t live in the third century A.D.  They didn’t even have anywhere to go to the toilet then, let alone any hospitals.  London was so chilly that the River Thames froze for 9 weeks in 250 A.D.  This brought about two ideas – the invention of the ice rink, and the start of the London Frost Fairs.  When I first heard about this I thought it meant the local maidens lined up opposite Sadie Frost on May Day and told her how fair and lovely she was, but it turns out this was icier than Sadie Frost, a.k.a. Sadie, Sadie, NOT married lady.  Yes,  icier than that.  In fact during the Middle Ages London was so cold that the Thames froze annually, whereupon it became a useful traffic-free road for the distribution of goods and, after that, partying.  This wasn’t so much to do with the idea that England was colder in the olden days, but rather the Thames was shallower and wider.  Therefore, it was easier for the water to totally freeze for most of January and February.  The Thames wasn’t properly embanked and generally sorted out until the 1860s, whereupon it got busier, deeper, narrower, filthier and crammed with odious fat floating restaurants offer dinner dances and midnight “cruises”.   Henry VIII was really fat, when he let himself go, and even he was said to have travelled up the icy Thames by sleigh to impress a lady he was hoping to make the seventh Mrs Henry, or something, and the ice held him.

However, the really really big one was the Great Frost of 1683-84.  It started on December 20th and ended on February 6th. Hackney coaches zoomed across the iced Thames, touting for fares, there was bull baiting, horse racing, puppet fares and “tipling”.  I’ve no idea what tipling is, but I reckon it was a transaction featuring the oldest profession in the world, but on ice.  Shops were built upon it so that the Thames became another street, and the King and Queen eventually roasted an entire ox on the Thames and ate it.  But this was the exception.  Most London Frost Fairs were short lived and it was often a race as to who would get off the ice safely before the river started melting.  The very last one was 1814, which featured a majestic interlude of an elephant being led across the ice whilst cold Londoners, shuffled their feet together, mouths agog in the chill.

In the Great Frost of winter 1708-1709, temperatures were recorded as low as -12degrees – but that was only because someone had the thermometer in Queen Anne’s pants.    Anyway, Queen Anne thought the Great Frost of 1708 a nasty Jacobite lie, an idea dealt a severe blow when it went ahead and killed quite a lot of French people. It was the coldest European winter for 500 years, and many people felt that it was downright ridiculous and that something should be done about it.

Since its embanking and the wider arches of the new London Bridge were installed, thereby affecting the flow of the river, our Thames doesn’t freeze over.  This is a great great shame.  We could add a new dimension to our New Year’s Eve fireworks display by having a sort of ice skating X Factor special which combines Dancing on Ice with The Great British Bake Off.  The cast of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! would have to compete in sleigh-racing contests and we could fly Robbie Williams in for a ice-skating rendition of his most popular classics.  Then once the winter is over we could bury him in a sort of Egyptian funeral under a tonnage of snow and ice and then the pagans can dance on him.  We have snowballs and gin and tonics with lots of ice and then we shall laugh and laugh.

Snowfall confuses the English anyway.  2 centimetres of the stuff can send the entire country into a hysterical mess.  The national obsession with the weather confounds even a central heating obsessive like me.  Why must we speak of the weather, debate the weather and worry about the weather?  Answer : we are a nation of skivers.  We love the leaves on the track, the cancelled trains, the beauteous hush that makes its gracious descent on the suburbs on a snowfilled Tuesday morning when you know you aren’t going anywhere.  We like anything that stops us going to work (this may go some way to understanding the popularity of Royal Weddings.  It can’t all be down to a nation goggle-eyed at Princess Anne’s drip-dry two pieces looming out at us from a Cathedral).  We love anything that makes us put the telly on a half past ten in the morning.  Our national character is aligned with the “Ooh, pop the kettle on and let’s watch the snow on the news with a custard cream” philosophy of skiving.  It’s skiving without admitting you’re skiving.  It’s snow skiving – it’s not our fault, you know, it’s the damn weather – whilst wearing thick socks and worrying about getting a sled to take us up to Tesco.  It’s also the smuggest time of year for the non-driver.   The delight of saying “Oh, I’ll just pop the temperature on at 15 for the whole of the night” as you slope off to a chilly bed feels terribly decadent as well.  After all, this is a country where most people pride themselves on not putting the heating on until November 1st when there are icicles hanging attractively from their noses and their bottoms have frozen up completely.

Brace it, kids.  It looks like we’re in for a long haul.  I may be paraphrasing here, but I think in Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, her memoir of rereading every book in her house, she strongly advocated “Throw another log onto the fire.  It’s Dickens for the winter”.  I think the only retreat worth making is into the backroads of Victorian literature, with its hardy constitutionals, breathless Brontes scaling West Yorkshire hills and playful street vagabonds flourishing in a London winter with no socks on.  Now’s the time to retire, close the curtains and bolster up the heating whilst secretly yearning for a wood burner.  It’s going to be a long winter.  Still, at least we’re not in Russia.  Or at least, you could be with this long winter beckoning ahead.  War & Peace anyone?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday December 5th!  Many thanks. The London Bluebird.

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Review : David Baddiel “Fame” – Purcell Rooms

Gosh, but the Queen Elizabeth Hall is a spooky place.  Built in 1967, accessible only via a concrete flight of stairs just above the skateboarding bit of the South Bank complex and not – I discover to my fury – named after Elizabeth Taylor, it remains welded inside a late 1960s, architectural nightmare.  The toilets are especially weird.  Unchanged, the toilet paper dispenses from oval-shaped holders that may have doubled as a prop from the first series of Doctor Who.  The flush is resounding, as flushes on loos used to be.  It is a sad truth, but as the British have consumed less beef, boiled puddings and suet and swapped them for chorizo, lamb pasanda and Pret a Manger sushi, the British toilet has lost its imperial flushing zeal.  But the Queen Elizabeth Hall toilets know what they are about.  They’re the kind of loo you can imagine Richard Burton sitting on whilst smoking a fag and flicking ruefully through The Sunday Mirror.

In the Queen Elizabeth Hall terribly well dressed and terribly tidy middle class people resolve not to complain about the shocking Rioja they get in plastic glasses filled to the brim.  The wine inside the glasses tastes of damp November twilights and disappointment.  Beady eyed matrons rustle The Saturday Telegraph Arts supplement and eat Hob Nobs which they secreted in their handbags earlier back in Epsom.  It seems a very odd place indeed to go and see a part stand up, part memoir reflection on fame by David Baddiel, but here we are – his novels precariously piled up in a pile on a 1967 style table by the toilets, a smattering of patrons awaiting a classical concert in a room that smells of school.  Outside, the sky farts and creaks its way through the darkness of the first night after the clocks have gone back.  Oh I do apologise, all of this is making an evening with D Baddiel sound rather gothic and it really isn’t.  But the venue was a terribly weird idea.  It’s Waterloo for a start, and no one wants to go to the other side of the river unless it’s life and death / on a promise/ imminent nuclear attack due in North London.  But there were many other venues that would have served this show better – the UCL theatre, the glorious spaces of The Soho Theatre or even a week crammed into the sweaty intimacy of Islington’s Kings Head.

There were probably some other support acts that may have served this show better, or maybe he was having an off night, but unfortunately the support failed to connect with the audience.  Audience members appeared disgruntled during the interval foisted upon them between Starter and Main Dish.  The couple behind me were roues of the televised comedy scene, reminiscing about their evenings in pockets of West London seeing 8 Out of 10 Cats being filmed and eerily turning to each other and saying “Well, you know what we were doing this time last week…”   in a really unsavoury way.  They may well have only been in the radio audience of Just a Minute but they made it sound as if she’d spent last week trussed up whilst he indulged in radio audience themed role play. When David Baddiel did emerge – following the obligatory playing of David Bowie’s Fame to set the scene – it was clear he had had a marvellous time doing the 5:2.  So dieted and svelte was he that he seemed to have gone a trifle too far and swiftly shrunk to the 4:1.  Either way, he needs some matzo balls.  It sounds shocking, but he says he’s nearly 50.  Chillingly, I turned to my friend who had kindly bought me a vat of damp wine in a pint glass and said: “If David Baddiel is 50, how old does that make me?”

The answer was old enough to remember when he was first well known and old enough to have been young enough at the time to have gone to see him at Wembley Arena, where security searched my bag and confiscated my smoked salmon sandwiches.  I still do not know why this was. In those days, the heady, bizarre conflicted twosome that was Newman and Baddiel was hurtling uncontrollably into an Avalon-financed comedy pile up.  After three years in a van together touring the country dressed alternately as bickering History professors and Soho perverts, Rob Newman and David Baddiel were desperate for a divorce.  It’s fortunate that they didn’t stay together long enough to have children.  As it was, the combination of the then apparently porn-obsessed Baddiel and the startlingly beautiful Newman didn’t appear to be entirely simpatico and you had to wonder what kind of stars had been in alignment when they started writing together in the first place.  An awkward BBC documentary aired the same week they played Wembley Arena, showing them travelling side by side in a van seat along the M6 not talking and awkwardly eating service station sandwiches, whilst Sean Lock sat beside them like a Relate counsellor who had finally met a couple he couldn’t help.  Dave dressed like, well like the person he was, a North West London Jewish Arts graduate of the late 1980s, whilst Rob appeared to be channelling The Scarlet Pimpernel and risked being buried under the weight of his own velvet frock coats.    “We probably won’t work together again,” said Baddiel looking wired and distressed.  Comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll then, but the queue to rock ‘n’ roll with Baddiel was decidedly shorter than that for Newman, whose sexual attraction was positioned at such a glorious Olympian height that most of Wembley Arena lunged forward and offered him their uteruses during a five minute interval of disturbed, hollering feminine hysteria when he first appeared on stage.  I’ve yet to witness anything as unquenchable as the particular thirst that several thousand women appeared to have for him that night (and you’re talking to a lady who’s seen middle aged women fall over during Frank Sinatra concert encores) but there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.  His reaction to the infinite horror of being caught in the oestrogen headlights of thousands of young ladies was to go to ground.  He emerged several years later as an political activist, author and eco-warrior, and I really can’t blame him.  The initial upsurge of their fame was so strident and hysterical and sudden that it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that it was a really unpleasant experience for both of them.  That’s one of the peculiar things fame does.  Aside from being a glittery bauble of excess, money and adulation it darkens and splinters and seemed to cause Newman and Baddiel’s working relationship to combust.  Their management company, Avalon, also came under some fire for their marketing campaign of them – what were they doing putting Newman and Baddiel on the front cover of the NME and the Melody Maker?  They weren’t musicians.  But to criticise Avalon for this on grounds of it being inappropriate was to miss the point : there was no where else to put them (Oddly there still wouldn’t be – in the thirty years since the alternative comedy movement there is still no monthly magazine or journalism niche to serve it). Avalon put Newman and Baddiel everywhere they could.  And it all went a little bit bonkers.  Even a groupie experience of the time that Baddiel recalls is tinged with awkward humiliation and distaste when he is coerced into saying his catchphrase in the middle of proceedings.  Never mind, off they trotted on their different paths and we are left only to regret that the idea Baddiel said him and Newman had had for a sitcom set in a lunatic asylum (working title “In The Bin”) wasn’t picked up by the BBC.

After his decree absolute from Newman (he got custody of the jokes), Baddiel developed a long-standing partnership with Frank Skinner which led to a sofa-centric television career, which he curtailed slightly to accommodate novel writing, before blossoming out into film writing and – now – musicals.  His ruminations on fame come at a significant time because they concern themselves partly with the impact that social media has on the manner in which people who are well known are perceived.  This is essentially what he is dealing with : not fame itself but the way that the circus hall of mirror’s perception of fame appears to construct you.  His dalliance with fame has been , as he outlines in this show, a push-me, pull-me sort of thing, as it only can be for someone who relies partly on public performance and partly on solitary writing.  When he’s on television, he’s on television.  When he’s having a fruitful writing period, people approach him in West Country car parks assuming he is ill.  Television is the platform by which society judges how far you rank on the fame-o-meter.  Television, not social media, is the golden egg.  If you’re on television you’re doing well because your visibly channelling yourself into millions of peoples living rooms.  If you happen to make films like Steve Coogan well, then – you’re massive.  If you’re writing books you may as well not exist.

Much of the time it’s probably irrelevant for David Baddiel to discover that David Baddiel is famous, because, as he says in this show, 6 out of 10 people think he’s Ben Elton.  One of these is Andrew Lloyd Webber who, having written a show with Ben Elton, really ought to know better.  Indeed, there is a vast similarity in the type of facial hair / glasses and physical (pre – 5:2) shape – with the main difference being that Baddiel has always walked in a way that my mother would say was schlocking about.  He isn’t a schlock, but walks with a deep curve on his shoulders that makes you want to immediately enrol him in some Pilates classes at the nearest day centre.  However, he did recently tweet pictures of himself recovering in a clinic having had his back operated on, so perhaps his schlocking days are numbered and he will be forced into proper deportment.

Over the last six or seven years, Baddiel has focused away from television and more into writing, in other words, he has sought to be a little less famous / ignored by Madonna / dealing with the surreal every day business of being a Someone.  At this stage, he begins to acknowledge the liberation of people not quite knowing who he is anymore, but then Twitter invented itself and he has a very funny twenty minutes musing on internet trolls.  The problem with the perception of fame, he says, is that the over-riding culture we live in presents it in two ways – either fanciful, glorious adoration or death tragedy.  His experience, is neither, albeit this is a befuddled “third” way.  It isn’t entirely clear what the summing up of this show is : Baddiel repeats the premise of it several times – an investigation or a deconstruction of the process of discovering people think you’re utterly different to who you actually are – but this is smart comedy about an aspect of our culture which many others have chosen to leave unexamined.  It’s brilliantly funny but much of the laughs are underlined with a real sense of anxiety – the troll who abuses, the knife in the side of the internet that is Twitter, and the virulent poison that is England’s particular brand of sly anti-semitism.  These issues bring a sort of odd bitterness to the laughter.  There are all manner of despots, racists and idiots who consider those who engage in public performance have consciously lined themselves up to be fodder for abuse.  And they haven’t.  In fact, it is his musings on how anti-semitism is presented in British culture that are the must illuminating of the evening – how this country, which is dedicated to using words that express meaning without actually using the words themselves, ends up repeating phrases slyly synonymous with, and therefore disparaging of, Jewishness; “North London” being the most over-used example.  The phrase “North London” becomes a respectable disparaging conduit when what is truly meant is “Jew”.

The virulent side of fame is balanced out by referring to his family photographs and stories, notably how the American celebrity culture is echoed in something so apparently straightforward as his daughter’s junior school leaving show, and also in the comment that most people seem jolly nice.  But it seemed a strange end of the show to play a video of his daughter singing a song, and it underlined the fact that the show did not in fact have an ending.  And that’s really a shame because this was a series of observant, intelligent, very funny – yet slightly disjointed – tales.    Baddiel is saying something really worth saying it here, both about the nature of celebrity and the over-arching press culture that serves to enhance or destroy it.  It’s just that I was left with the the sense that he hadn’t quite said it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next update will be on November 21st.  Thank you.