COLUMN: August 17, 2017

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The Brummie comedian Frank Skinner

AS A person who occasionally writes comedy for money, I found myself drawn once again to Edinburgh’s Big Showing Off Festival. For the sake of clarity, when I say I write comedy, I am not referring to these columns. These columns are not comedy; they are cries for help with the occasional joke.

This was my third visit to the capital of Scotland and the capital of people who can balance on sticks. This makes me an old hand and meant that when I arrived, I had already learnt the important lessons.

For example, I knew that you cannot pull a trolley suitcase through a bus shelter without enraging a local, that bagpipers don’t like it when you laugh at them, and that it would have been no loss if jugglers had gone out of business when we invented bags.

It also means that I know how the Edinburgh Fringe works. You have the normal Fringe, where you buy tickets for events beforehand, and the free Fringe, where admission is free, but you have to pay to get out, as they used to do in clip joints.

That is unfair. What actually happens is that the performer stands by the exit with a bucket and as you file out past him or her, you put in what you believe the show merited.

Now, technically you could walk out past the performer and put nothing in. But very few people are capable of doing that, and those who are tend to become right-wing radio talk show hosts.

Or you could drop 28p in the bucket. In many ways, that would be worse than just walking past the performer. That would be like saying, “It’s not me, it’s you. That performance was so abysmal, so lacking in any artistic merit, that I am paying you in coins so inconsequential that they will probably be abolished in the next four years. Watch as each of the five coins bounces grimly off the bottom of a bucket for which you will still be out of pocket at the end of your run.”

But you do not. You drop paper money into the bucket, because you are a human being who understands the torment of other human beings, and the choices that have led a person to stand in a small room in Edinburgh dressed in curlers and a housecoat, pretending to be their own grandmother.

Another thing about Edinburgh during festival season is that time has no meaning, and mealtimes happen when you are hungry, and so I was wandering along a street mid-morning, looking for somewhere to eat in a place where the Edwardian beard and tattoo count was acceptably low, when I was assailed by a woman bearing flyers.

But this one was unlike most other flyers distributors because she was also one of the two women on the flyers. “Please come and see us. We’re very funny and we’re not Frank Skinner,” she said. At no point had I even imagined that Frank Skinner was two women, but this was clearly meant to be helpful.

But when I looked at the flyer, it said Franks & Skinner – presumably their surnames – and I understood the potential for confusion. I had no idea what their show was about. Half of the sales pitch was explaining that they were not a male Brummie comic.

Their show was in 15 minutes’ time. “Yes,” I said, “As God is my witness, I will come to your show.” There had to be more to them than not being the man from Fantasy Football League.

But it was a Free Fringe show, and I only had 28p in my pocket. I had no choice. I had to find a cashpoint, for I am not a monster.

However, there was not a cashpoint in sight. Quickly I opened the maps app on my phone and looked for the nearest cashpoint. It was six minutes away. I could do this.

And so I tore through the always-uphill streets of Edinburgh, directed by my phone. Until I reached my destination. Where there was no cashpoint.

I thought I had learnt all the lessons about Edinburgh, but I was wrong. I had learnt three new lessons. First, always have a five-pound note in your pocket. Second, never promise anybody anything. And third, if you have a double act and your names are Franks and Skinner, and you are worried about the confusion, you should go by Skinner & Franks.

COLUMN: August 10, 2017

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Look at all those sesame seeds. What are they even for?

SESAME seeds are dangerous, and it’s about time that somebody did something about it.

There should not be an outright ban on sesame seeds – sesame oil is an important ingredient in Chinese cuisine, and the last thing we need to do at the moment is annoy the Chinese – but there should at least be some regulation surrounding their use.

I say this because I have previous with sesame seeds, and so I understand just how perilous they can be. A few years ago, I was enjoying a post-film hamburger with my son when I cracked a pre-molar, an experience which very much is not to be recommended.

At the time I blamed my distress on an onion ring. But, in retrospect, I realise it cannot have been that. The onion ring, while battered, was hardly crisp. It was so soft that if I had rolled over onto it during the night while in bed, I would not have woken up.

The bun was pappy and certainly not up to the task of holding a small beef patty for more than a few bites, although the amount of sugar in it might have had some effect in weakening my tooth.

The burger itself was not exactly al dente. A small baby could have made a good stab at it. As for the barbecue sauce, if you have to bite through barbecue sauce there’s obviously been some sort of accident. The same goes for the weird plastic melted cheese that was draped over the burger. I do not know what makes the cheese that strange yellow-orange glowing colour, but I would not want to meet the cows responsible.

That only leaves one culprit. The only things hard enough to break a tooth were the sesame seeds sprinkled for some reason on top of the bun.

Nobody knows why sesame seeds are sprinkled on top of hamburger buns. In quantity, sesame seeds have a strong flavour, but you only get 20 on your bun, so they have a limited effect. They are the Andrew Ridgeley of garnishes – a hamburger would look wrong without them, but nobody knows what they do.

The only reasonable explanation is that they are part of a stitch-up between the fast food industry and the toothpick industry, because unless you are lucky, or you somehow manage to grind them between your molars, those super-hard little seeds are going straight for the gaps between your teeth.

But that was not my worst experience with sesame seeds. A few years ago I was invited to a swish cocktail party. I know what you are thinking. “But, Gary,” you are thinking. “You are one of the gilded metropolitan elite. You voted Remain in the EU referendum, and you call them napkins, not serviettes. Surely a man of your calibre goes to swish cocktail parties all the time?”

The fact is that I rarely go to swish cocktail parties. In fact, you can count the number of times I have been invited to a swish cocktail party and have been able to attend a swish cocktail party on the fingers of one finger.

Bear in mind that all I knew about gatherings like this was what I had seen on television or in films. An Eastern European waitress passed me, carrying a tray of prosecco flutes. I suavely swiped one from the tray, as James Bond would have done, and headed into the throng.

I spent five minutes trying to find somewhere to put my empty glass down and by that point I was peckish. Luckily, another Eastern European waitress was passing with a tray filled with tiny cones of fish and chips. I swiped one. This really was the life. I felt at one with Rihanna and the late Sir David Frost.

I introduced myself to a group of people at the party. I was devil-may-care, refreshed by a glass of wine, two chips, and a goujon of cod. And as I launched into a sparkling anecdote, I swiped a tiny bite-sized burger from another passing tray.

I popped the slider into my mouth, and then I let out a blood-curdling teeth-jangling scream.

If it had not been for the sesame seeds scattered on it, I expect I would have noticed, sticking out of the top of the bun, the cocktail stick that was holding the whole thing together, and was now connecting my tongue with the roof of my mouth.

And so that is why sesame seeds are dangerous.

COLUMN: August 3, 2017

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Chris Traeger goes for a run wearing literally no glasses

I HAVE been running for a few years now, on and off. I do not know why I have to qualify it with “on and off”. Everybody who runs does it “on and off”, otherwise they would never sleep or watch the television.

The point is, I have a routine now. I strap on my phone holder, I insert my earphones, I check I have my key, I put on my running shoes, I check I have my key again, I pick up enough money for water, but not enough for bus fare in case I am tempted to cheat, I check I have my key again, and I head out of the door.

What I do not do is put on my glasses. There is a very good reason for this. When I run, I perspire. I also bounce up and down.

Those of you who wear glasses will understand that perspiration, particularly around the nose and ears, reduces friction. Add a bouncing motion to lack of friction and you know that those glasses are not long going to stay attached to your face.

And even if they do somehow stay on – for a laugh, perhaps – they will just steam up.

Glasses, then, are useless to the serious runner, which is why you never see Sir Mo Farah stop in the middle of the 10,000 metres to huff on his specs before wiping them with his vest.

And yet, if I could find a way to incorporate glasses into my running, it would prevent me from getting into the sort of scrapes into which I regularly get.

It might, for example, have prevented me from spooking the Duck Women.

I was pounding the pavement. I would like to think that I looked masterful and fit, but I know deep down I looked as if I were tumbling forward in slow motion, never quite reaching the horizontal, while trying to catch invisible cakes that had fallen out of my hands.

In the distance, I could see two figures. They were blurry, as was everything else at that distance, but they were moving fairly slowly, and, I anticipated, would not cause me too much distress. They were not, for example, carrying a ladder or large painting between them. There was little chance of a slapstick-type accident.

As I got closer, they moved into sharper focus. I could see they were women. One of them was carrying a cardboard box, and the other had a small dog on a lead. As long as I did not directly run into either of the women or the dog everything would be fine. Such are the calculations I must make every day.

I continued to head towards them, and it was only at the last moment that I realised that the small dog was not on a lead. Nor was it a dog.

It was, in fact, a duck, leading the women somewhere. And in the cardboard box was another duck, guarding a number of ducklings.

In retrospect I can only assume the two women were taking a duck family, which had hatched in their garden or yard, to the nearby park, presumably to rehouse them, rather than as a treat.

At the time, I did not have the luxury of working out what was going on, as my thundering hooves and poorly coordinated body threw the women and the elder ducks into confusion. The duck in the box flew out towards my head in an attempt to protect its young, the other duck quacked, and the women shrieked, almost dropping the box. I understood at last what it must be to be Godzilla.

I yelled an apology over my shoulder. It was the very least I could do in the circumstances, but also the most, given that my experience with ducks is limited to feeding them or being fed by them.

I clattered on, feeling bad about disturbing a family of ducks and their human companions, and I suppose I was overly preoccupied. Because in the fug of guilt I failed to see the real danger.

A single bramble stem snaked out from a wall, hanging over the road at face height. Had I been wearing my glasses it would have been deflected by them. Of course, had I been wearing my glasses I would have seen it in time.

It turns out that being smacked in the face by a bramble really hurts.

This sort of thing never happens to Sir Mo Farah.