Hello. This is a piece plugging our comedy benefit gig, and it has no jokes in it. The piece, that is; the gig will be full of them – from a brilliant line-up including Robn Ince from (amongst many other things) The Infinite Monkey Cage, the incomparable comic poet and songwriter John Hegley, comedian and comic actor Kevin Eldon, who has worked with Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, Stewart Lee, Martin Scorsese, and me – to name but a few, in no particular order of brilliance. Sindhu Vee is in my opinion one of the rising stars on the comedy circuit. It’s a phrase I rarely use, but in this case it’s bang on and can’t be bettered even though it’s a cliche. (And I’m a really good judge.) Catch her before she’s huge. Likewise, Pippa Evans, whom you might have seen on Live at the Palladium last year. Her Edinburgh Fringe shows always sell out throughout the run, and she is a regular on The Now! Show on Radio 4.
We are also proud and delighted to have the unique and wonderful double act of Ronnie Golden and genuine comedy legend Barry Cryer; you name any British comedy act, Barry has worked with them, for them, has an anecdote or twelve about them. Star of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, warm-up man for Monty Python’s Flying Circus…the man is more than a comic force – he’s a part of the country’s cultural fabric. And Ronnie – lead singer of The Fabulous Poodles and Ronnie and The Rex, backing musician for Chuck Berry, touring and drinking partner of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Buddy Holly in The Young Ones, stalwart of the comedy circuit for over 30 years…it’s going to be a proper treat.
So why are we all doing this gig – at the Union Chapel, in Islington on Thursday 1 March?
Well, English PEN campaigns for freedom of speech and for the rights and release of persecuted and imprisoned writers and journalists the world over. So it’s total self-interest for us, really. Being able to say what you want, including being offensive, is an essential tool of our trade as comedians. In the same way that when Boris Johnson enters a china shop, he always needs a bull with him. Yes, OK, a joke, and yes, rather laboured. I’m not getting paid and it’s late.
The obvious comic route to take when you’re plugging a gig about protecting freedom of speech is to say how we could all come up with a list of journalists we wouldn’t mind seeing in jail, of offensive – or just tiresome – rentagobs you’d love to punch in the mouth. How people expressing different opinions is where all the trouble starts in the first place. Problem of course, everyone has a different list. I’m probably on some people’s – I hope so. And actually, even if we all had exactly the same list, it would still be a problem. But it’s an overused comic paradox, and especially as I’ve already used the cliche ‘rising star’ – albeit accurately, I’m just going to stick to the plugging: 1 March, Union Chapel, Islington. It’s a Thursday. And a great bill.
To finish off, some casually and randomly assembled cases from around the world, which, in my opinion, are all good reasons to support PEN and if you can, to support this benefit.
Turkey: over 150 writers and journalists are in jail. Scores of media outlets have been closed down during the current state of emergency. Ironically, President Erdogan himself was jailed for four months in 1998 for writing a political poem. PEN would have been campaigning for him at that point. (That’s a good thing. Not that the incontrovertible evidence of his hypocrisy loses him any sleep.)
Malta: you’ll no doubt remember the spectacularly horrific murder by car bomb of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia last October. She’d been exposing international corruption centred in Malta for 30 years. PEN is helping in the campaign to have her assassination fully and openly investigated.
Bahrain: Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace has been in jail since June 2011, where he has been mistreated, tortured, denied adequate medical treatment and deprived of reading and writing materials. All because he is a human rights activist and blogger. And of course, many others share his plight. I wonder if they can hear the Formula One cars from their prison cells when the Grand Prix is on. That would make a nice change from the screaming from next door. Formula One got rid of hospitality-girls last week as a gesture to 21st century decency. Evidently, boycotting countries that jail and torture human rights campaigners is way more controversial.
That’s always the argument from the commercial interests and the democratic countries – that economic arguments constitute a force majeure – good trade deals must not be jeopardised. (That’s assuming a hypothetical situation where Britain is actually capable of negotiating a good trade deal ever again, instead of sitting at the table like a poker player with no cards, no hands, and a big mirror behind them just for good measure).
But let’s live in the real world for a moment, shall we? Without repressive regimes, who do we sell our torture equipment to? I for one know that, were I being electrocuted with a cattle-prod in a subterranean dungeon somewhere, I’d feel a lot happier knowing I was supporting a traditional British craftsman who takes pride in making genital-burning equipment to the highest of traditional British standards. Not only that, it would cheer me to be part of the supply chain which enables that craftsman to pay for hospital parking while he spends all day and all night frantically running up and down a draughty corridor begging exhausted medical students to attend to his ageing, ailing mother, and ends up helping them break into the pharmacy to steal amphetamines in a desperate attempt to keep them awake for the entirety of their 72-hour shift. Knowing I was supporting a thriving post-Brexit economy would turn the searing pain surging through my testicles into a warm patriotic glow. I’m sure it would.
I know it’s more complicated than that – but at the same time, it’s actually not: however desperate things get economically – for whatever reason (and I’m not pointing a finger at anyone or anything, least of all that mendacious megalomaniac Boris Johnson) – however desperate situations get, however attractive or acceptable it seems to take ‘short term’ repressive measures for ‘the general good’, or turn a blind eye to other people doing it – there always needs to be someone making the strong and simple counter-argument for basic human rights over profit.
That’s what English PEN does, and it needs money. Do come.
I promise the gig will be a lot funnier. And if it’s not, feel free to punch me in the mouth.
Watch the video from last year’s gig with Adam Bloom, Andy Hamilton, Shappi Khorsandi, Stewart Lee & Jonny and the Baptists
Produced by English PEN and Funny for Good.