Happy Birthday, Dear Spike

This morning I realised that one of my comedy heroes, Spike Milligan, would have been a hundred years old today. There was nothing else for it but to write my own tribute to the man who, from beyond the grave, gave me permission to ‘Never lose the silly side of myself’.

This is a direct quote from my second novel, I HATE THAT YOU BLOODY LEFT ME, and was written into the blurb for the book after I had been reading a lot of things about, and written by, Spike. The line was a doff of the hat to my comedy hero, whose genius helped me when I was down. The reason was that while working on this book, I was undergoing a period of doubt about my comedy writing ability – a crisis of confidence, if you will. I had previously unleashed my first novel, THE NEW MRS D, upon the world and had stumbled ill-advisedly into reading a few of my poorer reviews. One particular Goodreads reviewer, who simply wrote, ‘zzzzz’ stuck in my mind for far longer than it should have done.  I did manage to stamp out this demon once and for all in a unique and funny way, by reading it aloud in a series of videos on the Mean Reviews for the Compulsive Readers website. You can see one of them here:

While I was in the throes of the inability to let my comedy mojo loose, I was able to reason with myself that comedy is a subjective thing. Reading some of the impassive responses to Spike’s hysterical letters only served to confirm this further. What an individual finds funny can depend on a lot of things, including our background, personality and sometimes even our ability to laugh at ourselves. There are those who will nod their heads in acknowledgment while giggling hysterically at an anecdote, and those who will frown and ask, ‘What does this mean?’ My biggest critic is my beloved husband, someone with an entirely different sense of humour to mine, who has been known to tell people, ‘My wife writes comedy. Apparently, she’s very funny.’

And so it was that I turned to Spike Milligan in my hour of need, who has always been a favourite of mine. To quote Michael Palin in the Radio Times this week, ‘The Goon Show made me aware that it was all right to laugh myself silly.’ This is exactly what reading some of his work over again gave to me at the time – Spike made it okay to be silly, and right at that point in my life, I needed permission to be. I read PUCKOON, where in what I feel is a stroke of genius, he would have conversations between himself and the characters, such as:

‘Author? Author? Did you write these legs?’
‘Yes.’
‘Well I don’t like dem. I don’t like dem at all. I could ha’ writted better legs meself.’

I bought MAN OF LETTERS and howled at some of the many correspondences he was legendary for having had with famous celebrities and businesses over the years. The one here was sent to the Marketing Director of Tetley Teabags.

Whilst being one of the funniest, most original talents on earth, it is widely reported that Spike was also dogged by uncertainty. He had mental breakdowns and was in a constant battle with his inner demons. I have been lucky to have not fallen prey to the extremes of depression, but the uncertainty, I get. I really get it. To quote Laurence Marks in his 2011 article for The Telegraph on the difficulty in writing comedy:

 ‘On the very first day of our lives as professional comedy writers, my partner Maurice Gran came to work, had a cup of tea, looked at his watch, and said to me, “It’s half past nine. I suppose we’d better go upstairs and make 15 million people laugh.’

That is pressure.

For a long while I’ve had a theory that the world of publishing shies away from comedy fiction novels like mine, with no romance element, when they aren’t written by already successful comedians and actors. It’s largely unchartered territory area, as far as I can see, (and please do feel free to correct me with some examples in the comments because I’d love to find some). But I think that may have a little to do with the subjectivity of humour. Publishers already know when an actor and/or comedian has been successful in appealing to a wider audience and, as such, they can be sure of a good return on a comedy novel from them. It leaves the relatively unknown comedy writers out of the running and you can find yourself stuck in a rut of uncertainty, unless you seek out inspiration from the masters. It lets you know that staying true to yourself can get you there, as others have done. You can find the confidence to keep your originality through observing the work of those that have, or had it in spades.

‘Dare to never lose the silly side of yourself.’

Even though the book is now over six years old, I still get appreciative emails from readers about THE NEW MRS D, many of whom might be surprised to learn that I suffered from extreme bouts of self-doubt whilst working on the comedy element of my second novel. I had a majority of readers begging me for another book, and a minority of people leaving reviews that questioned my ability to write a book at all. Guess which ones shouted the loudest to me?

Spike Milligan’s brilliance genuinely drove me on. He was a genius who could make anything funny, while calling out those that ‘Didn’t get it’. The note scrawled on top of the entirely professional response letter from K Pringle at Tetley (below) sums everything up. In the pursuit of attempting to cheer the world up, you win some, you really, really lose others.20180416_115606-e1523879803656.jpg

As the dear, wonderful and sadly missed Spike advised us, ‘The best cure for sea sickness is to sit under a tree.’ With his inimitable spirit in mind, I’m off to cure my combined addiction to – and fear of – comedy writing by never attempting to work on another book or blog again, just in case one person doesn’t get the joke. Until later this afternoon.

Thank you Spike, and Happy Birthday. I’d have loved to have read your reply to that telegram from the Queen.  X

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Exercise, Ovaries and the Meaning of Life

The late, great Victoria Wood is one of my all-time comedy heroes. With lines like, ‘Take my knickers off and my ovaries will ‘ave fell out or something,’ I challenge you to watch this genius step aerobics scene without splitting your sides. God, I miss her.

I read an article in Reuters this morning, entitled, When Heart Disease Runs in the Family, Exercise Tied to Lower Risk. I sat on this thought for a little while, wondering whether my youngest daughter would mind being buckled to me while I used the step machine. Concluding that she really, really would, I scrubbed that idea. Yet the truth hit me harder than she did when I suggested it. Heart disease does run in my family. It runs harder then we all have, judging by the look of things.

I’ve been thinking about my own morbidity a lot, which has driven me to exercise. It started, as I’ve written about previously, as I entered perimenopause and began thinking every cough or earache I have means I’m going to die. The solution to the problem has to be to take more exercise, yet I’ve had to alter my approach somewhat. All of a sudden, working out on a step machine while listening to Alicia Keys and belting out, ‘This girl is on fire!’ has become less of an empowering chant and more of a literal experience. So instead of _Totally bonkers... and totally brilliant!giving in to this overwhelming fear of death, which is definitely connected to the fact that when my dad was my age he only had seven years left to live, I’ve begun to try and turn all my new anxieties into something positive. I’ve come to realise there is (sometimes) much to learn from those we’ve lost while figuring out the way to make our own lives fuller and longer.

My father died when he was just fifty four. The ultimate cause was the last in a series of strokes that began as early as when he was in his thirties. A late life onset diabetic, he had to have his leg amputated due to complications and spent his last years in a wheelchair. This after being a young, fit corporal in the Royal Engineers and later, a damn fine architect forced to quit very early in his career due to ill health. Because, as it turned out, my dad was not such a damn fine architect of was his own health and longevity. He smoked like a chimney, was addicted to sugar (he liked to take carnation milk and syrup in his coffee) and was morbidly obese. It still hurts my heart to recall the times I eagerly ran errands to the shop for him each day after my step-mother left for work, because I would get to keep the change. I was sent to fetch what I wasn’t to know were prohibited chocolate bars and sweets for him, things that had been banned from the house and that he was no longer able to get out to collect for himself. Not a big drinker, my dad’s drug of choice was sugar and it, along with the cigarettes, took him from my life when I was fifteen.

My mother was a chain-smoker and died more recently. She was seventy-four and suffered from, among many other things, chronic obstructive airways disease. Something that will stay with me forever is the fact that during her last days in hospital, terrified from her experience in an induced coma in ITU and unaware she was dying, she told my sister and I that she would never touch another cigarette for as long as she lived. She was quite correct. Mum was a diabetic too, and had a lifelong battle with her weight. When my sister and I went to clear out her home after she’d died, we found boxes of Slimfast shakes everywhere. I cried, remembering that mum had been ecstatic at waking from a coma to find she’d lost around forty pounds – a feat that had alluded her, despite her best efforts, for all of her adult life.

_Totally bonkers... and totally brilliant! My parents have taught me more very valuable lessons than they could ever know. It is how they lived that has influenced the way I have. It was their addictions to tobacco and sugar, the resulting chronic illnesses and the realisation that both of them would have had so much more time had they known what I know today. Both of my parents had heart disease too, hence my interest in the Reuters article. I’ve never smoked, and have read everything on insulin resistance, fasting and type 2 diabetes reversal going, my favourite books on the subject being Dr Jason Fung’s The Obesity Code and The 8 Week Blood Sugar Diet by Dr Michael Mosley.  The latter resulted in my easily losing a staggering twenty-seven pounds in two months! My eating habits are far healthier – and more informed – these days than it ever was in my twenties and thirties. I fast three times a week and feel all the better for it. I will never be a slave to sugar again, unless Gerard Butler coats himself in chocolate and gives me a call.

Yet I can’t find, nor understand, the will to engage in punishing exercise. In my younger years I did try hard to join those I considered to be the elite fitness folk, i.e. everyone with a gym membership card that gets used every week, and not just for scraping ice off car windscreens or to remind them of that loan they defaulted on after going for four months then giving up. I went to the gym once, and it resulted in a cardiovascular accident of a different kind: my public humiliation by treadmill, which I wrote about in my article, Who’s Laughing Now. Now news items like the one I read today, coupled with my advancing years, are making me worry all over again about whether I’m doing enough to avoid an early demise.

I confess, I don’t go to the gym anymore and it’s because I’m older. I’ve developed a more laid back perspective on life in general, and that includes anything connected to exercise. From years of listening to people brag about lifting fifty, I find myself pushing fifty and wondering what it was all for. Do I want to run for hours on a treadmill where the scenery never changes? Isn’t breathing in the fresh air of outdoors preferable to the CO2 and sweat of forty other people? Do my personal health objectives have to include letting a fit twenty-two year old monitor my vital statistics? Why did I even ask that last question? (Scrub that and file under life goals – Ed).

The fact is exercise, whilst important, shouldn’t feel like a chore. It’s like everything else _Totally bonkers... and totally brilliant! in life. Time is precious. I want to spend it engaging in what I love, never what I feel forced to endure.

I have two, regular workouts of choice: walking my dogs and freestyle dancing in a sporran.

The first began as something I had to do, but developed along with my deep love of the countryside. Where I live now, out in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, this exercise routine has frequently and unexpectedly launched me closer to Sportswoman of the Year than I ever thought I’d get. I’ve broken the four minute mile while been chased by Galloway cows; I’ve invented and competed in the world’s first solitary version of Tough Mudder in Socks by trudging up boggy hills without realising I’ve left my boots stuck in the mud at the bottom, and I hold the current record for most falls on my backside. I’m less of a fell runner and more of a ‘fell running’ kind of person.

dancing in a sporran
An OAP dancing in a sporran

And never let it be said that I don’t take the advice I write into my own stories. Dancing in a sporran was an activity I invented for a character in my book, I Hate That You Bloody Left Me. Elderly widow, Fleur Brookes, would put her mobile phone inside her husband’s sporran, plug in her earphones and dance away to rap music. Being married to a Scotsman myself, this has been my favoured method of keeping fit ever since. The beauty of it is being able to harp back to the days where I liked to dance about my bedroom, behind closed doors, pretending I was Suzy Quattro. I’ve been down to Devil Gate Drive a lot in secret recently, and no one knew until today. I do this mostly in the afternoons as I started walking first thing in the morning, after reading that working out early could mean you get more sunlight, a key to setting your body’s circadian rhythm. It’s been reported that people who bask in early sunlight tend to be thinner. This could be true. I live in Scotland, where basking in early sunlight results in your double chin being eaten by ten thousand midges.
Anyhow, I’m still alive and so are you as you’re here reading this. So between us we must be doing something right. My work in progress has a leading character who works out by letting a neighbour’s dog chase her up the street. There’s an idea I won’t be adopting in the near future, given that my nearest neighbour breeds and sells Boerboels, which aren’t Christmas tree decorations, as I first thought.
Have a lovely, healthful week.

_Totally bonkers... and totally brilliant!