The Big Yin

24/01/2016 § 2 Comments

Thank you for attending the Billy Connolly event at Hammersmith Apollo. Please take a few minutes to complete the following questionnaire:

How satisfied were you with the booking experience?
A. Very satisfied.
B. Somewhat satisfied.
C. Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.
D. We’re beginning to think we should have used an easier word to say repeatedly than ‘satisfied’.
E. Far from gruntled.
F. Actively disgruntled.

How happy were you with the venue experience?
A. Very happy.
B. Quite happy.
C. Happy happy happy.
D. Clap your hands if you feel like a room without a roof.

In your opinion, paying four pounds for the privilege of collecting your tickets from the Box Office is:
A. I can’t…even…
B. Wait what HOW MUCH?
C. Larceny, pure and simple.
D. All of the above.

Billy Connolly is:
A. Extremely funny.
B. A 73-year-old man with the mind of an 8-year-old-boy.
C. Absolutely irresistible.
D. A master storyteller.
E. All of the above.

Two hours without an interval is:
A. A long time.
B. A really long time.
C. A really really long time, especially if you’re a 73-year-old with Parkinson’s who’s holding an audience of 3000 in the palm of your hand.

When you were eleven, what did you think ‘The Big Yin’ meant?
A. The big one.
B. The Deranged Bearded Scot Wearing Banana Boots.

People who rustle crisp packets for the duration of a two-hour comedy show should be:
A. Shot.

People who hold conversations with their neighbour for the duration of a two-hour comedy show should be:
A. Shot.

People who do both of the above should be:
A. Given the severest punishment available.

Which is?
A. The occasional hard stare.

You’re English, aren’t you?
A. How did you know?

Did it make any difference?
A. What do you think?

Bloody hell.
A. Yeah, I know, right?

A. Hold on, wasn’t this supposed to be a questionnaire?

Oh, right. Erm… Ok, now I remember. After leaving the venue, full of laughter and memories, and realising that this was almost certainly the last time you would see this comedy legend perform, did you have a little cry?
A. No.
B. Definitely not.
C. Stop looking at me.
D. Who’s slicing onions?

Do you have any further comments?
A. No, I’m good.

You mean ‘fine’, don’t you?
A. Yes.
B. Yes.
C. Yes sorry I’ll never do it again, and I’ll never say ‘can I get’ when I mean ‘please may I have’.

Ok. We’ll say no more about it, then.
A. Thanks.


24/12/2015 § 4 Comments

There are those who are born to dabble, and those who are not.

Firmly in the latter category sat my father, who died 28 years ago today. (28 years – bloody hell. 28 years before that the shower scene in Psycho was filmed; 28 years before that, give or take, Al Capone was sent to prison; and 28 years before that the Wright brothers made the first powered flight. Mortality maths is a mug’s game.)

My dad, quite simply, devoted his life to playing the violin extremely well, an endeavour in which he was, to cut a long story short, successful. Here he is playing Mozart.

It takes a lot of time and effort (as well as natural talent, of course, but that’s another, and lengthy story) to do anything that well. It leaves little time for dabbling, and while my father took an interest in many, many things, music and the violin were firmly front and centre from a very early age. And they stayed there.

My own approach has been much more dabblesome. My lack of concentration was a byword among my long-suffering teachers, who often ooh look a blue tit.

Sorry, where was I?

Oh yes. Concentration.

Mr Guilford, charged with cramming Ancient Greek into my terminally unreceptive head, summed it up in one of his reports on my ‘progress’: “I must confess I am baffled. Regardless of cajoling or threats, he refuses to do any work whatsoever.”

He may have understated his case a little.

Mr Guilford died a few years ago, his life no doubt shortened by the stress induced by memories of my inability to understand the aorist tense.

Despite this five-year period of academic inertia, I eventually found something I could do (music – well duh) and made my stuttering way forwards in that world, first at the back of the orchestra and then at the front. If all continues to go well I’ll be in the dress circle by the time I reach retirement age.

It’s at this point that I hijack my own blogpost to blow a tiny toot on a miniature trumpet.

One of my main areas of dabblage has been the threading together of words on screen and page for the entertainment of myself and occasionally others. There have been times when I think “Ooh this is fun. Perhaps I should have made a go of it”, but then I read articles about how little writers earn (even less than musicians, if you can imagine such a thing) and am, on the whole, glad to remain a dabbler.

My problem is that I’m a serial project-starter. I have an idea, write a chunk of it, then get distracted or get to a difficult bit or realise that the project is utter drivel from beginning to end, and it gets abandoned.

But this doesn’t stop me from imagining that one day I will produce That Difficult Second Book. (That Easy First Book remains available here.)

Luckily comedy sketches and short stories are brief enough to break free of this Escher-like process of continually unfulfilled expectations and emerge blinking into the sunlight more or less fully formed. They mostly don’t travel any further than my hard drive, but I derive satisfaction from having completed a job to the best of my ability, like when you do the washing-up and put everything away in cupboards on the same day.

Occasionally my confidence builds up a bit of momentum and impels me to submit something to the scrutiny of others – competitions and such like. My approach to these is not so much one of hope vs expectation – it’s more like certainty vs certainty. I send it off and move on. But just this once something I wrote has got through all the obstacles and has emerged more or less victorious. It’s a sketch, it’s called Meeting God, and it will be presented to an unsuspecting and insomniac public in the last episode of The Show What You Wrote on Radio 4 on December 29th at 11pm.

Have a listen. Or don’t. Up to you.

My dad liked comedy. I remember seeing him laugh so much that he fell, QUITE LITERALLY, off his chair and into the aisle when we went to see Billy Connolly a move, incidentally, replicated almost step-by-step by my son at John Finnemore’s Souvenir Cabin earlier this year – and not surprisingly, for JF is the master of sketch comedy.

My dad, sadly, didn’t live long enough to know about my penchant for writerly dabblage. There are myriad reasons for wishing one’s departed loved ones could return for just a day or so. That sketch is reason enough for today – and, given the chance, I’d make Mr Guilford listen to it and all.

Happy Christmas one and all.

Clive James – still not dead

12/12/2015 § 3 Comments

About fifteen months ago The New Yorker published a poem by Clive James called ‘Japanese Maple’. It was, and is, a beautiful farewell to the world from a fine writer.

We were sad.

We waited for the inevitable news of his death.

And waited.

And waited.

After a while it occurred to me that “When is Clive James actually going to die?” might be an apposite, if not entirely tactful, question.

The same thought obviously struck James himself. He resurfaced this autumn (in my purview, at least – closer followers will no doubt have been tracking his every move), talking, in his admirably droll and self-deprecating way, about “the embarrassment of still being alive.”

Terminal illness hasn’t rendered him idle. The last couple of years have seen the publication of two volumes of verse, a translation of The Divine Comedy (the epic poem, not the band, who sound fine in the original language), a book of notes on poetry, and a volume of short essays.

More, then, than some people manage in a lifetime.

And now a weekly Guardian column, pithy, witty, wise and touching, more so for the underlying knowledge that each one might be the last.

Obviously the shadow of death affects people in different ways.

I remember first reading James. My parents thought he was the funniest writer around. In this, as in so much, they were right on the money.

I was fifteen or so. Disaffected. Lazy. The cause of parental perturbation and despair. But if anything redeemed me in their eyes it was that I read Clive James. A teenager capable of emerging from apparently permanent torpor to laugh himself sick at James’s thoughts on Mrs Thatcher’s tone (“she sounded like a cat sliding down a blackboard”), George Melly (“gave his usual impersonation of a man whose body, while he talks, is being slowly devoured by tiny fish”), and Billie Whitelaw (“plays Josephine with the effortless desperation of Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopsticks”) might not be so irredeemable as they’d thought.

Then Unreliable Memoirs, his first volume of autobiography, which had me retching with laughter almost throughout. And another volume, Falling Towards England.

And so on.

I don’t think I got the serious points he was making in amongst the funny, or even that he was making serious points. I just loved the funny. And I recognised, even then, that he seemed to need fewer words than other people to say what he wanted.

He’s a poet, see. They’re good at that.

Clive James – Reports of my Death can be found here.


08/12/2015 § Leave a comment

The squirrel was nothing if not determined. Fearless, too.

Its task: get to the bird feeder. The principal impediment: an anti-squirrel baffle, a plastic dome affixed halfway up. It’s welcome to explore the inside of the baffle should it so wish, but finding a way onto the top of the dome so it can gorge itself on fat balls and sunflower seeds is a different matter.

It considered the options. Clamber onto the rosemary bush and jump up? No purchase. Climb up the inside of the baffle and somehow wangle its way round from there? No dice – even when clinging on to the pole with its back legs and trying to claw its way round with its front legs it couldn’t find a way to shift its weight round and up.

It reconsidered. Perhaps, just perhaps, it could jump from the table onto the baffle. We’d moved the table so it shouldn’t be able to do this, but as I say, the squirrel was nothing if not determined. It hopped up onto the table, squirrel-stylee.

We don’t like the squirrels. They bully their way into our garden, stealing the food we’ve put out for our favourite birds. Can’t they see that we want our feeder to be frequented by the cute things, not the vermin? Maybe they don’t realise they’re vermin. Vermin usually don’t. (By way of citation I give you Donald Trump.)

Not all squirrels, of course. On the Isle of Wight there are no grey squirrels. The red variety, their endangered cousins, are regarded as beautiful, shy and endearing. And so they are.
But the grey ones, widespread on the mainland, are bastards, an unwelcome predator, any admiration we might have for their ingenuity and daring completely outweighed by an instinctive distaste for their scavenging habits.

Funny how we’re so selective about which animals we care about. Fluffy, majestic, noble, cute, prone to doing amusing things on camera? Come on in! Squidgy, slimy, indefinably icky, perceived as vermin? Piss off.

Anyway, this squirrel.

It was with some pleasure that I saw this grey squirrel, this resourceful, plucky, verminous grey squirrel, take a running jump and attempt to leap the two metres and eight centimetres (I measured it) from table edge to baffle top, landing with a hefty thump on it and then sliding inexorably off it to the ground.

Undaunted, but ruefully clutching its chest, it took a moment to consider where it went wrong, then tried again.


The bastard clung on, and readied itself to tuck in to the finest fat balls the RSPB has to offer (they’re like crack for blue tits, these fat balls. Seriously.)

I charged out onto the terrace, clapping my hands and sending it charging back down the garden.

I then moved the table another twenty centimetres away from the feeder.

Five minutes later, the squirrel returned. And this happened.

This, I might add, was the first of several such attempts.

Full marks for trying.

Nice job on the rentals!

05/12/2015 § Leave a comment

David Letterman is hunched over his laptop. He opens Excel. The sheet has three columns: ‘Rentals’, ‘Own Drums’ and ‘Notes’. He scrolls down, types ‘Foo Fighters’, enters a tick in the ‘Own Drums’ column, then types ‘will not sell’. He sits back, a contented smile on his face.

Thanks to Paul and Nathan for reminding me that this exists.


03/12/2015 § Leave a comment


Sometimes you just want to spend five minutes watching someone scratch a dolphin. Thanks to Susy for sharing this.


02/12/2015 § Leave a comment

The nights are drawing in. You can’t bear to watch the news. Donald Trump exists. It’s all getting a bit too much.

Watch this.

If you’re not smiling/laughing/generally feeling just a bit better after about five seconds, then I don’t know what.

I’ve gone on record about my love for Scott Bradley before. Add to that my love for the exuberance and brilliance and just sheer fun embodied by this group of musicians and you get a really very enjoyable six minutes and thirty-six seconds indeed.


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