Monday, 21 December 2009

We are full of other people

Sometimes you find beauty in the strangest places.

It was a serendipitous chain of events that led me to book Daniel Kitson’s new show at the Union Chapel in Islington on Wednesday.

I am a compulsive ‘signer upper’ and seem to be continually signing up to mailing lists, competitions and forums online. Something or other, some sort of recommendation, must be what led to me receiving intermittent emails from The Invisible Dot, some sort of comedy/events website.

In October, an email came through about a gig from the comedian, Daniel Kitson. Years ago, someone I worked with told me how great he was live. Some barely functioning synapse in my brain staggered back into life and recalled, hazily, how he had once won the Perrier Award. I looked him up on the net, but didn’t even read about his comedy style. I saw his beard and thought he looked interesting, like an insecure sax player. (It makes sense to me.) Before I knew it, I’d ordered the things. The internet makes it too easy. It’s not like ‘buying’ at all.

Fast forward to a drizzly, sleet-filled day in December and I am sitting in the most beautiful grade-II listed church. It isn’t that it’s ornate – in fact, it’s the opposite. It is carved lovingly out of wood, with an inconspicuous, domed roof, and a single ostentatious arc of stained glass at its centre. I am not religious, but I sit in the pews and find myself hushed, near-reverential. Sometimes I think that people go to church not to worship a god but to worship this ‘thing’: this sense of aesthetic; being locked in against the elements outside; the collective experience; the monumental awe; the sense of reaching, being; the pinnacle of sense itself.

I thought the comedy might be incongruous. In fact, it was not. It was complemented.

Daniel Kitson’s comedy show is about death. Although he laughs this off at the beginning as unlikely material, I am obsessed by Woody Allen (the pre-noughties stuff, mind), and so frequently turn to the macabre, the dark, the twistings and turnings of mortality, as kindling for gags.

So although I didn’t find Kitson very novel, he was still very funny. He comes across as a lovable sort of guy. I could relate to his self-deprecation, his very modern loneliness – and he gives it all a fresh twist. He even makes a joke of his “courage” for being a comedian with a fairly bad stutter (I didn’t know he had one before I went), and I did feel a bit guilty, because I had, indeed, thought, “Isn’t he brave for going up there?”. Members of my family have stammers – and I thought it was refreshing to see someone with a stammer being the funny guy, the active – rather than the passive, the one that (less good) comedians find it easy to take the piss of.

But maybe I need to stick to the point. The point is this: sometimes you pick up a book and feel a sense of weight, of significance. You were meant to read it at this time and place. The message speaks to you directly – to the extent that you feel more like a character than a reader.

So it was with this comedy. I felt like something fortuitous had led me to book those tickets, to be sitting on that hard, wooden pew.

Kitson’s show mostly deals with his grief about the death of his aunt Angela – how, when she died, the days seemed to darken and everything was ruined and rotted through by the inevitability of demise.

The show lifts up at the end to reveal the first streaks of daylight: when the sadness ebbs, and you remember the person you loved – not at the end, not even when they were young, but somewhere in the middle.

He remembers how his aunt Angela, who had Down’s syndrome, would say “Greaaaat” every time she had a knickerbocker glory. He says he hears her voice now, whenever he has one.

Daniel Kitson announces: “We are full of other people”.

This could sound a bit like a platitude. I’m sure we’ve all thought similar things, heard similar phrases (if not exactly this).

But something about the way he says it, the way he approaches the sentiment… and something about the setting, and about how I am feeling, and how my mind frequently drifts these days to my nanny, who died around this time last year: her frailty at the end, her mental anguish, the sense of hopelessness. How one day someone can exist in all their complexity, their brain still firing, their heart still beating, their cells still throbbing. Then the next day – nothing.

Something about this: “We are full of other people”. My eyes fill with tears.

The next day I eat some hummus. Something prosaic and mundane. I remember that it was my nanny who first introduced me to hummus. I was about twelve years old. I thought it was gloopy and rough and odd. It left a smear of paste on the top of my gums.

Eventually, I came to like hummus. Not long after that, I was obsessed.I would scoop it out of the container with my fingers. I couldn’t get enough. I would eat it at my nanny (and her husband’s) lovely, warm house in the Somerset countryside. Sitting by the aga with my hands wrapped around a mug of tea. Watching my mum and nanny sit and reminisce and giggle like schoolgirls. The dogs milling about my legs. The clock ticking up high by the ceiling.

All this. Just from hummus.

It makes me smile that even eating hummus can be chocked full of memories. Full of people. I am a walking bank of memory. I am Legion: trembling, heaving, overspilling, with all the people I have ever met and loved or liked and who have ever had an influence. Even people I have never met, but have read their words, or heard their songs, or seen them flicker on the screen at the cinema.

It’s not wholly of comfort – but it’s a little comfort. That somewhere, in here, people live on. As long as I’m here, they will be here too.

It’s a beautiful thought, and makes me like my reflection a little better in the mirror.

When Daniel Kitson left the stage, I wanted to run after him and be his friend. The show didn’t make me screech and howl with laughter, but it was always wry and consistent and amusing and quietly touching and thought-provoking – and you don’t get much comedy that does that.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Trying to define it

I haven't been on this for a while. The nights are drawing in and life is getting frantic, urgent, hectic. There are Christmas presents to buy, cards to send. Our tree is finally up and decorated and something about the smell of the pine and sweet, amber glow of the lights makes me smile and flutter inside like I'm six years old again.

Winter has a hollowed, haunting beauty. There is something beautiful about survival. Just to get through the days tells us of hope and strength. Walking through my local park today, there were seagulls flocking for bread; some ducks; a swan; a squirrel furrowing for nuts. Wizened sticks trembling out from the trees, defiantly brandishing their berries. Life whittles on.

I think I will come back to Christmas soon because that is a topic of beauty that deserves more space.

I also don't seem to have gathered together any readers yet! At least, any that seem to be leaving comments. I could try to 'advertise' this blog more, possibly get a Twitter account and inform all my friends when it's updated. But, in 'typical me' fashion, I find that there is something to be cherished in its secrecy, in its covertness. And, also - isn't it more 'special' if people just somehow stumble on to this blog, rather than I drag them to its rather sentimental content, kicking and screaming? But perhaps I'm in denials. There is so much to read in this Internet world: everybody has to 'sell' their wares, in order to stand out from the crowd.

Another thing that's puzzling me is that I'm not even sure yet why I feel the need for readers. It possibly speaks of something psychological that I'd rather ignore...

In the meantime, let's jolt back to the main point of this blog: beauty.

I thought a dictionary definition might help matters.

the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).

2. a beautiful person, esp. a woman.
3. a beautiful thing, as a work of art or a building.
4. Often, beauties. something that is beautiful in nature or in some natural or artificial environment.
5. an individually pleasing or beautiful quality; grace; charm: a vivid blue area that is the one real beauty of the painting.
6. Informal. a particular advantage: One of the beauties of this medicine is the freedom from aftereffects.
7. (usually used ironically) something extraordinary: My sunburn was a real beauty.
8. something excellent of its kind: My old car was a beauty.


1225–75; ME be(a)ute < OF beaute; r. ME bealte < OF beltet < VL *bellitāt- (s. of *bellitās), equiv. to L bell(us) fine + -itāt- -ity

I'd like to go back to point 1:

the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).

To me, this evades a fundamental question. Why do we need to derive pleasure from our senses at all? We need food to live, but need it taste so good? Couldn't we have a driving life force in us that compels us to eat, regardless of this sense? Does grass to a cow taste like chocolate to a woman?

And what is taste, anyway - as we are fixing on taste in this analogy?

When we eat something good, why is it good to us? Oh, I know there's the idea that the taste buds have evolved to help us to distinguish between what is poisonous and not. But isn't there more to this? Otherwise, wouldn't we all be craving salads, and wouldn't too many carbs and a double serving of clotted cream taste positively repulsive?

And then there is 'sight'. Why do we not just 'see'? We have to see to navigate, to perceive, to discern. But why does having sight necessarily lead us to finding a painting beautiful, or a vista of a sailing boat, with the sun setting down its beams across the ocean? Why does our sight give value and not just function?

I am afraid I have no answers. And I'm not a philosopher and I am not terribly well versed in philosophy. No doubt that there are academics who have spent thousands of words on topics like this one, and probably reached highly interesting conclusions. (If you are reading this and you have examples, do enlighten me.) Please be aware that these are just the musings of an amateur. Of someone who just likes to think.

I can't help but also keep returning to the final last bit of that dictionary definition.

The "something else".

Oh my. Surely that's also worth a whole other blog entry at some later point in time...