FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS
7: I Am Left-Handed and Would Like To Sing A Song
For a long time, I went to bed late.
You remember every single thing that has happened so far in the twists and turns of Fun With The Foreigners? Ma-fa-yu, the bhajis, the mustard on toast, the akabanga, the croquet potatoes, the grammar lesson in a pub, the hairpin bends and the sudden memory loss? Not to worry either way, really. No, relax. It all starts again from scratch today. It’s a new story.
But you need just one more tiny fix of chilli, to get things moving, right? Think of Thai food. A meal is not a meal, including a salad, if it does not contain fresh chillies, and most people add dried chilli, or chilli with fermented shrimp paste, at the table. It is an intrinsic part of the diet, like chocolate in Switzerland, or potatoes in Germany. But of course like cocoa and potatoes, chillies originate in the Americas, and the rest of the planet has only had them for some 500 years. There was life, and culinary tradition, before they arrived.
When Columbus brought chillies back to Spain, people were far more interested in his tobacco cargo, didn’t consider them food, and kept them as ornamental plants. The Portuguese were more open-minded, started eating them, and took them to Brazil, West Africa, and Goa (now part of India), all places where they are an integral part of the diet to this day. The Portuguese had a brief presence in what is now Thailand, where they put all their efforts into converting the population to Christianity. The attempt was a remarkable failure, and they soon departed- but they left behind the seeds of a revolution. Thai cooking became much closer to what it is today.
So what was Thai food like before the 16th century? Historians believe most foods included a ground-up paste of fresh green peppercorns, galangal and ginger. A labour-intensive method was used to achieve a strong flavour. It’s as if they were waiting for chilli to happen.
When I left home, two very British activities dominated my life for the first year: performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, and studying at Oxford. But in almost every area of my life, I was behaving like someone who lived abroad. I moved less than 40 miles (on the “big day”, after much packing, and saying farewells, we arrived at my orange spaceship Hall of Residence in less than an hour), but I was clearly someone who was waiting for the chance to get out of the country.
At 17 I dreamt of performing on the Edinburgh Fringe, but also wanted to use my French. At 18 I appeared there as Mario in Marivaux’s Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard, performed entirely in French- what more could I dream of?
Being precocious is the first chapter in a life of disappointment- either you fail to reach that early potential, or you achieve exactly what you want, and then realise that you were lucky but stupid when you were deciding what you wanted. By the time you mature, it’s too late for anything. Any new hopes you come up with are likely to be dashed- plus, you are childishly ill-equipped for failure. This is the huge boo hoo from the blessed.
My subsequent dream was to carry on doing shows and having fun forever, and I have done some sort of show, and had some sort of fun, at most Fringes since my 1989 debut. My one-man show exactly a quarter-century later even included French dialogue again, and indeed every other official EU language, in a satirical triumph that did so much to prevent the rise of Brexit.
But the most fun I ever had on the Fringe was with my first one-man comedy show (“I Am Left-Handed and Would Like To Sing A Song”), in 1990. The best thing about it for me, and no doubt for some of the audience, was when it was over, and I could start grinding away at those green peppercorns. Mine was the first show of the day, and I was a free man at 1pm, having a pizza on a plastic plate for a pound, a pint of Guinness for 50p, and then going out flyering. This was basically an excuse for having fun with foreigners- chatting to tourists who spoke my languages and trying to make friends who would put me up when I was Inter-railing.
Reading French and Spanish at Oxford was in essence an opportunity to write and talk preposterously about literature, and the collegiate system meant one could do so whilst living alongside musicians, chemists and future politicians. I heard all the stories about the Bullingdon Club, but never went near it, so didn’t meet my near-contemporaries Cameron and Johnson. I was too right-on to get involved in the Oxford Revue, so I only met comedians Stewart Lee and Richard Herring years later in Edinburgh.
I did meet and collaborate with some incredibly talented British people though- some of whom I still socialise and work with on Fringe comedy projects. Others have gone on to much grander things, like the shrewd historian behind “Al Murray- Pub Landlord” and the gifted voice artist behind “Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg”, who is still going strong.
One didn’t really speak foreign languages as a bookish Oxford linguist, but I didn’t mind. That almost helped with my compartmentalisation. Off-duty, there was galangal and ginger aplenty. Rather than hanging around in the incestuous environment of the college beer cellar, where men outnumbered women 3 to 1, I did all my socialising in the Welsh Pony pub (named after the Welsh pit ponies previously sold at nearby Gloucester Green Market), a dive by the bus station (in a fit of literalist zeal, now renamed “Eurobar” for the new millennium), that had been taken over by visiting Spanish students.
Spanish parents were spending hard-earned cash sending their offspring to “Oxford” to learn English, and aforementioned offspring were spending the whole time hanging out with other Spaniards in the Welsh Pony. They never showed any evidence of being aware of local licensing laws, so they would start gathering at around 10pm, dance wildly while the last orders bell rang an hour later, and then stand in the street at 11:20pm, in all weathers, discussing what to do next. One option was “International Night” at the Manhattan Nightclub, in a basement under a theatre, memorably described by Javier Marías in the novel All Souls (as, somewhat mischievously, were all my tutors- tune in later for that!), when his Spanish narrator goes on the pull there in the early 80s. It was tacky, sweaty, and I was guaranteed not to bump into anyone from the university. But the more popular option at weekends, to avoid the queues and fees and extortionately-priced stingy measures of spirits and understaffed bars and naff music and humourless lager louts, was a house party, where we could eat, drink and make merry exactly as if we were in Spain (until someone started removing the salami slices from his pizza, and the whole edifice came crashing down).
Back in bland Blighty, my tutorial partner speculated that my motto might be “Don’t shit in your own nest”.