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It is a fool’s errand to enshrine a list of your favourite anything-of-all-time to print. And yet, I am having an intermittent whale of a time cataloguing, illustrating and annotating The 143, that is, my Top 143 songs of all time, in no qualitative order, based on the playlist I built for myself earlier this year and which grew to 143 by itself, at which point I stopped. The only rule was that no artist was allowed more than one entry. (Solo artists and the bands they came from, or joined, were allowed one each.) I started a separate blog to give it a bit of clout. And a Twitter account, @CirclesThe143 (based on the subheading Circles Of Life), which is currently being followed by a sweetly tiny 338 people.

It’s niche fun.

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Today, I added my 41st entry, Groovy Times by The Clash, a choice which I think illuminates the system. I could have chosen about 25 Clash songs to embody the six-year output of their “classic” lineup, most of them family favourites, but in the end, after much deliberation, I plumped for the third track on an EP, which captivated me when I first heard it in 1979 and captivates me still. I’m not being deliberately obscure. I chose Mr Blue Sky by ELO and Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manics. These choices are hard won on each occasion, as permanence is only bestowed by the click of the “Publish” button, at which point an entry enters the statute books. The full 143 is amorphous; I tinker with it all the time. Echo & The Bunnymen, for instance, have been flying around from pillar to post, and as I type, Killing Moon is their flagship. This may change before I commit it to blog. I’m finding it hard to dislodge the track Buck Tha Devil by the virutally unknown, Ice Cube-mentored rap group Da Lench Mob from The 143, but all the while I wonder if it really can take its place alongside Wild Horses and Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)? Time will tell.

A nice man on Twitter asked if this will ever become a book. I’d like that, but I am realistic after the poor sales of my last two books. Who would pay money for the 143 favourite songs of a man? That said, I slave over the entries for way longer than I should, sculpting my thoughts and working in anecdotes; this is, after all, unpaid writing. I’m doing it because I want to do it. (This explains why I have entered very few entries recently – I’ve been hard at work, with no spare time. A good and a bad thing.)

What I’m finding interesting – and I hope the handful of you who follow the blog do too – is the very personal nature of each choice. Many are connected to a formative memory. But nostalgia alone will not get you past the gates. I loved 4 Hours by Clock DVA the moment I heard it under the bedspread on John Peel in 1981 and I love it today. I play the 143 playlist directly into my head from my ancient iPod constantly. Having almost logged a third of the tracks in the blog, I feel closer to those, and at the same time desperate to describe the remaining little beauties. I’m listening to Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow right now. I must enter that soon. Oops, just given one away. What fun!

Why do we feel the need to quantify, order, list and catalogue? By which I mean we men. I wouldn’t insult women by endowing them with a deeper emotional response to the things they love than to sort them out and place in order, but it does seem anecdotally to be a male deficiency. Our love for songs is no less profound, it just needs putting in a labelled tin before we can sleep at night. (I’m all for a debate about this – all rules are proven by exception.)

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While some artists demand to be included – Dylan, Bowie, The Fall, the Wu Tang Clan – I’ve yet to find a chair for the Beatles. There’s time. But with George Harrison already enrolled (The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp), and both The Plastic Ono Band and Wings in the wings, it may be that The 143 has no need of the Fabs. You mustn’t force these things. If All About Eve by Marxman makes it in, and Paperback Writer doesn’t, so be it. It’s not definitive. It’s not concrete. It’s not right, or wrong. It’s mine. All I know is that no song in this eventual list will ever fail to light up my life when I hear it.

More enterprising folk than I have been following The 143 and turning it into a Spotify playlist. If you are one of these folk, please throw your links at me. In the meantime, I’m off to start writing an entry about the Psychedelic Furs album track Fall.

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Nowgate

Although it is a major Fringe venue, with people like Jim Jeffries, John Bishop and Five Guys Named Moe among its current attractions, I went to McEwan Hall this morning to attend a meeting. I think it might have been an extraordinary one, although for me, to attend a meeting of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society is already out of the ordinary. In a nutshell, the Festival Fringe Society Ltd was founded in 1969 to give performers control over central services. Over the years, this control has, in the words of Our Glorious Leader, Peter Buckley Hill, who founded and runs the Free Fringe, “been hijacked by non-performers. To reverse this, it was always possible, but difficult, to join the Society for an extra £10 and vote for new directors.” Sadly, for us, they stopped taking new members while the Society underwent a consultation into its very constitution. Peter’s, and thus the Free Fringe’s, position is simple: “Performers pay for the Fringe; performers make the Fringe; performers should run the Fringe and all directors should be performers. One show, one vote.”

Because this Utopian ideal is threatened, all Free Fringers were required to attend today’s meeting – which, it has been suggested, was held at 10 in the morning precisely to discourage hungover performers from turning up – and voice their views. I was happy to do this. Not since my time in the NUJ have I felt such an urgent need to collectivise, agitate, organise and raise my hand, as it were. There was certainly a sense of camaraderie as we assembled outside McEwan Hall, Peter clearly delighted that so many of us had turned out, despite the hour. (Luckily, I only drank pear cider last night with Justin and co., and was thus not hungover, even though Richard will insist that I must have been.)

To be honest, it was not exactly an exhibition match by the Fringe Society. It was a large meeting, held in a cavernous concert hall, and yet to begin with, no microphones were in use. They rustled one up, and, after more grumbling, a second one, so that it could rove and give those in attendance amplification for the “views” apparently so enthusiastically called for. A blue sheet and a pink sheet were handed out, setting out the options for both membership, which as I say is currently suspended, and election of directors. I couldn’t stay much longer than 11.30, as I had a show to do, but I was there long enough to taste the tension in the room between those inside the citadel, many of whom seemed offended by the noisy presence of so many Free Fringers and performers in general, and impatient when thorny questions were asked. If this was an open exchange of views and information, you could ask, why weren’t these sheets made available before the meeting? (Peter upped the awkward squad ante very early on, asking the “facilitator”, a professional from outside the Society, what his qualifications were, and how much the Society was paying him. You’ve got to love this man.)

Much harrumphing seemed to come from the members, and a similar amount of spikiness from the Free Fringers. There seems to be a schism: the Society seems hell bent on keeping a cap on membership, while those outside are desperate to blow it wide open, so that everybody who registers with – and pays their not inconsiderable dues to – the Fringe programme is automatically eligible to join for a hopefully modest surcharge, which means they have a say from day one, and can then affect decision making, especially with regards election of board members. Sorry if this sounds very dull. I’m sure you’d rather read about which comedians I have had a sandwich with. But such matters are vital to the continuation of the Fringe spirit. It’s fine that venues and promoters are represented, but only one of the current 15 directors is a performer, and that’s all out of whack. Without performers, there is no Fringe. Just a few false beards, discarded unicycles and Converse baseball boots in an Edinburgh gutter.

Anyway, I left before the end, so have no idea if there was an actual riot, with chairs being thrown, but it was a bracing event to start the day with, and stirring to hear such eloquent speakers, and a couple of non-eloquent, frankly self-serving ones. (Hey, you give a performer a roving mic … ) It was interesting to hear from Tommy Shepherd, who founded and runs the venerable Stand venues, where Stewart Lee now exclusively plays to assuage his guilt for operating in a commercial world – he put the case forward for option one, ie. non-automatic membership for any Tom, Dick or Harry, very eloquently. Although I’m enough of an 80s idealist to go only for option two: total anarchy. The consultation process rolls on.

For the first time at Bannermans, I was able to get into the building before midday, and start setting up in plenty of time. Also, they had an electric fan on, which made so much difference to the comfort levels in that tunnel. I was markedly less soaked at the end of my hour today, and I hope the audience were happier too. Another full house, although this time not actually packed to the very limits of fire safety, which I actually preferred, even though it meant comparatively less laughter. I am a little worried that I may lose spontaneity a bit if I get too slick at remembering my words, as the best stuff – for me – is the rambling; stories which I have literally never written down. That said, as long as I don’t get complacent, there’s no reason why my show can’t improve. The Secret Dancing demonstration at the end, with, today, two male volunteers, remains a simple way out. I discovered two more bits that can be safely dropped today. It’s amazing how ongoing the refining process is.

Ended up going into Caffe Nero after the gig, to “spend” the partial loyalty card a nice couple gave me outside the Pleasance last night (I already had one of my own endeavour with two stamps on it). I got chatting to a splendid couple from Lincoln (actually Louth), who I’m guessing are younger than my parents but – with the utmost respect – in the same approximate generational ballpark. The man of the couple is retired, although this must have been early retirement, as he is using his retirement by walking around listening to AIOTM on his iPod and laughing in public. What a cool retired man he is. Just as they were leaving, my tour guide Tony and his friend Helen walked in. Honestly. You could just sit on your own in a coffee shop or bar all day and night in this city at this time of year, and you would never be without someone to talk to.

Nobody in the flat got a Tweet in G2 today, which is a tragedy. But the rain earlier has paved the way for sunny skies, as is Edinburgh’s offputting wont. Saw Paul Putner in the street again, except this time, he was walking past Kevin Eldon, who was being filmed on a street corner. That’s more interesting than a load of shit about a meeting, yes? Oh, and last night, I forgot to mention, as I was queuing for Justin Moorhouse, I saw comedian Josh Howie centring himself round the back of a Portakabin, sitting in a sofa and eating a banana before his Pleasance show Gran Slam, which coincides with Justin’s. He shouted over to me: “You should come and see me!” in imitation of a petulant, jealous child. I promised him I would. I only met him for the first time ever on Sunday. Now I have an obligation to see his show, which I aim to honour, naturally. The more comedians you meet, the longer your list of obligations becomes. I haven’t even seen Robin Ince, Michael Legge, Gutted or Tom Wrigglesworth yet! Or Gary Delaney, or Sarah Millican, or Margaret Cabourn-Smith, or Carrie Quinlan, or Alex Horne! Help! You can understand why Richard Herring locks himself in his room all day, with occasional trips out to not go to the gym.

(Oh, and a nice Scottish man Alistair Braidwood has interviewed me about the Fringe for his blog.)

Royal Smile

NB: Sorry this is so long, but it’s more like a diary entry for two days than a standard blog entry.

You are here. Actually, you may not be. But I am. My Edinburgh Fringe 2010 has begun. As is now fairly well documented, I first visited the Fringe in 1989. I came again in 2001. Both times with a show – President Kennedy’s Big Night Out and Lloyd Cole Knew My Father. But from 2005, I think every year, I’ve been up in some capacity or other. (In 2005, it was for the audience pilot of Banter, funnily enough, which involved Richard Herring.) Two years ago, under a year into the podcast, Richard and I tried out a live one, at the Underbelly, for free, at 10 in the morning, and it worked out just fine. Last year, we did five in a row, which sold out. This year, we’re doing ten (two blocks of five), and – in case I haven’t mentioned it – I’m making my solo debut with Secret Dancing. Anyway, I arrived at Waverley Station at 14.25 on Friday afternoon, and although it all felt incredibly familiar and comfortable, I had a different feeling in my stomach.

I checked in at the Young Ones-style flat, welcomed by the star of Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric, Justin Moorhouse, who, it turns out, wears a housecoat for most of the day and looks very much the Wildean sophisticate. I had no time for a cup of tea, as I had to dash off to Bannermans, the rock pub venue where Secret Dancing takes place every lunchtime until August 21. This was the aspect that gave me the weird stomach feeling: knowing a) that I will be performing, on my own, for an hour every day I’m here, and b) because it’s part of the Free Fringe, there is no promoter to look after me, not even a co-star! Charlotte Young is what’s known as the “venue captain” at Bannermans, and I met she and Frog and Mark, whose Unwrong Quiz follows my show each day for the next week, at the venue. They were all very nice, and made me feel less nervy. I inspected the venue, which is ostensibly for punks bands to play, so it’s very easy to convert to a comedy venue, with folding seats, and a PA all ready to roll. Once I had tested out my new lead, and made the music on my MacBook come out of the speakers – and work with my remote control – I relaxed considerably. Gawd bless Charlotte, Frog and Mark. And Chris, who is our liaison at the venue, and seems very much to know exactly what he’s doing.

I came back to the flat, and this time Richard Herring was home, looking even leaner than when I last saw him, and disarmingly smart in his Christ On A Bike suit. No sign of Tom Wrigglesworth, who’s playing Neil in our recreation of The Young Ones, as he is a bit of a hippy, but I hoped he wouldn’t mind me toasting two slices of his bread – I made a mental note to replace them, perhaps without Tom even noticing. I had a cup of herbal tea with he and Justin, and I knew I wouldn’t be doing anything as domesticated or organised as buying food from Sainsbury’s with which to territorialise a section of the fridge just yet, as I had Free Fringe duties that evening. So I went back out, and up the hill, remembering how much of an incline Edinburgh is on, and how many times in a day you are likely to have to trudge up and down that incline. Who needs gym membership? I was confident I could instinctively find my way around again, having come here every year for six years’ on the trot, and indeed, Cowgate and Canongate and the Royal Mile and George Street and the bridge and Pleasance Hill soon slotted back together for me. I walked past the Tempting Tattie as I headed off to the Canon’s Gait pub, and wished our podcast shows weren’t on so late this year, as the mass descent on the Tattie may not be practical – or advisable, given the heavy weight of the large tattie with mango chutney and cheese – at 4pm.

I had already texted Michael Legge, and it was a happy sight to see he, Robin Ince (with whom he’s doing Righteous Ire for the Free Fringe) and Carrie Quinlan (who helped convince me that the Free Fringe was my best option after raving about it at the Radio Light Ents Christmas party), coming down Canongate. We drank pints, and clinked glasses with Margaret Cabourn-Smith, who is in Gutted: The Musical with Michael. She and husband Dan Tetsell are here with their baby, doing what many performing couples do up here: share out the childminding. We attended Peter Buckley Hill’s rousing oratory downstairs at the Canon’s Gait, which was a bit like a left-wing revolutionary version of Hitler in a bierkellar. PBH, whose Free Fringe this is, is a charming old lefty. His ethos and commitment to said ethos are infectious. Kate Smuthwaite also added to the smoke-filled-backroom-without-the-smoke atmosphere by ordering us to attend a Fringe Society open meeting on Tuesday morning and demand, possibly with menaces, that they allow more performers to become directors, and to offer membership to all performers as a matter of course, as they govern us, and we should govern ourselves. Also, a desperate call went out for four further mic stands. This is the Free Fringe: bluster and bonhomie, coupled with pleas for equipment. You have to love it.

Another quick-smart dash across town to the Assembly at 9.30 in order to collect my ticket for Christ On A Bike, which started at 9.45, or so the posters said. I was a little late and the queue for Richard’s biggest ever Edinburgh solo show was already halfway down George Street. As I wandered down it, looking for the end, I was delighted to spy Tony, whose Twittername is @cockbongo, with his mates whom I met last year, via Twitter. Real comedy fans, I was even happier to see them if it meant beating the queue. If they didn’t want me to join them, they did a sterling job of covering it up. Tony has already seen about half a dozen previews – he lives locally – and made me realise just how difficult it is to see everything you want to see. (I will see my flatmates’ shows first, then gradually work my way down the list of people I know whose shows I also want to see, like Gary Delaney, Sarah Millican, Tara Flynn, Michael and Robin, Gutted, Stewart Lee, Carrie, Ava Vidal, Bridget Christie … the list goes on, way past when I have to go home, I suspect, but I will do my best.)

Christ On A Bike, which I am proud to say I saw twice in 2001, once here, once in London, is very, very good, and you can see why Richard has revived it. His audience has expanded so much over those nine years, and most will not have seen it. So it may as well be a new show. Richard thinks I didn’t like it, or pretends to think that, because I keep saying how good the technical side was, and how good the queue was. This is because I’m trying to think of something more useful to say than just, “It was really good.” We met for a drink afterward, which meant pear cider for me (I am still in thrall to Mark Watson from last year) and herbal tea for him. He hasn’t drunk since he turned 43, and even though he’s not totally well and knackered from all that stupid exercise he’s doing, a more suitable lifestyle for the 43-year-old man suits him. I can’t get used to him being in a suit the whole time. He may as well put on a tie and be one of the businessmen he once mocked so freely. We bumped into Sarah Millican there. And Paul Putner. It’s good like that. You bump into people.

Another cup of tea at the flat. Still no sign of Wrigglesworth. Richard’s girlfriend is staying with us currently, which is just as well, as four blokes in a flat is no healthy. (Lucy Porter usually supplies the oestrogen – plus, last year, Danielle Ward – but she has gone and got pregnant, and is thus sensibly living somewhere else with the father of her impending child.) Incidentally, having previously kipped in the spare room in this very flat the previous two Edinburghs, it’s nice to know the layout of the place, and to have an actual bedroom this time. The ceilings are characteristically high – about the height of two modern rooms stacked on top of one another – but not as high as the rent, which is through the roof, as is traditional. I am doing the Free Fringe to reduce overheads – you pay no venue costs, or PR, or promotion, which makes all the difference, and any money you make in the bucket after the show is yours to spend on coffee and cake – but some, like accommodation, hiked bar prices and at least two big nights out at that Italian restaurant, are unavoidable.

Up early this morning, Saturday, in order to do what I like to do in Edinburgh, go for a walk and get some air before the day really gets hectic, buy the Guardian, and sit and drink a coffee. Because my favourite little underground coffee shop, Wellington, wasn’t open yet, I was forced into Starbucks, which was, and I enjoyed watching the same genial Big Issue vendor from previous years with a beautiful dog, who was greeted by a number of people who obviously always chat to him and give him money, and his dog some biscuits. On my way back to the flat at 8.45, I saw a cab waiting outside, and passed Tom Wrigglesworth on the stairs, as it was waiting to pick him up. I never ascertained where to, but it was good to say hello at last. Richard and I then went back up the hill, this time to BBC Scotland, where, in crazy, topsy-turvy fashion, we’d be appearing as guests on our own 6 Music show, which Richard Bacon is taking over for the next four Edinburgh Saturdays, and, by dint of being up here for 5 Live, he was presenting from inside a tiny studio with his co-host Mark, while producer Dan was at 6 Music in London. With only one mic, and Richard’s iPad propped up with the running order on, it was perhaps the least glamorous set-up in broadcast media. Mark had to come out of there, so that Richard H and I could squeeze in and snuggle up. It felt unlikely to be sitting there, promoting out shows because we could because we were guests not presenters, and hard to imagine that it was actually going out, live.

Richard went home, and I had a brunch in Foodies cafe, to fill me up for the rest of the day, as I had my first show to do at 12.30. I got to Bannermans at midday, met Kate and the Unwrong boys, and started to centre myself. It became clear as I nipped out into the bar to get my pint of tapwater, that we were going to have a full house. In fact, even with people standing, we had to turn some people away – including a gang of teenage girls, as we discovered that Bannermans doesn’t even allow under-18s through the door of the building, something none of us knew. This is a shame, but can’t be rectified. Spread the word. With the venue crammed – something that really lifted my confidence – I launched into Secret Dancing, and pretty much remembered all of it, and dropped the Plax Bottle Mystery bit to shave it back to an hour. I couldn’t fit in the analysis of dance lyrics either, which will mean something to you only if you saw the previews. I expect it will change again, as the fortnight progresses. Anyway, I enjoyed doing it, and people seemed to enjoy being there, and some coins were dropped into the bucket, which cost £1.50, at the end. I still can’t really believe it went so well. But I came down with a bump just three hours later.

Simon Lilley, comedian, muso and impressario, is hosting a variety show at the Free Fringe, every day at 5pm, called The Dog That Ate Your Birthday Cake, its title taken from a Sparklehorse song; basically, he and two guest performers. He’d asked me if I would be one of them at last week’s PBH benefit gig at the Comedy Pub in London, which I found awfully flattering. I said yes. It would be interesting to take 10-15 minutes out of my hour show and see how it worked as a short set. Anyway, after a refreshing pear cider in the Underbelly bar, by myself – you become incredibly self-sufficient at Edinburgh, and nobody takes a blind bit of notice of people drinking or eating or sitting and thinking alone – I wandered over Simon’s venue, the Base nightclub. He said he had no audience, and was frantically flyering outside with a couple of guys from the venue/Free Fringe. I took some flyers and joined in (“Free show, starts in ten minutes, just over there!”), and, amazingly, we rustled an audience up, about 20 people, of all ages and temperaments, who were tempted by the lack of money changing hands to come and sit in a club, not knowing who or what they were about to see. I felt it was the spirit of the Fringe. Sadly, due to there being no music playing when they sat down, and a perhaps ill-advised opening salvo by Simon about Sparklehorse, whom nobody had heard of, and the fact that their singer had committed suicide last year, the show started out pretty flat and quiet, and if anything, got flatter and quieter. I did my best to get them going, and did the Surrey routine from Secret Dancing, with absolutely no connection whatsoever. Simon had another go, and then Rosie Wilby, who has a show about sex at the Underbelly, whose thoughtful and jolly observations about men and women failed to light up the audience either, despite many attempts to get them involved. Most of them were polite enough to stay until the end, although three drunk girls, who had at least provided merry, if pissed, laughter, and put some money behind the bar on shots, staggered out, followed by the four less-drunk-but-still-drunk lads who may or may not have been from Potters Bar. Simon, Rosie and I supported one another by enjoying one another’s acts, and I held the bucket at the end, for what it was worth. It was a fairly miserable experience, although for a novice like me, character-building. I don’t blame the audience; they were amenable enough to be herded in off the street, and didn’t boo or even heckle, but it can be hard going. My experience at lunchtime was, I realise, a blessed one. This put it into perspective.

Tonight, having finally bought two bags of shopping from Sainsbury’s and created my own shelf in the fridge (and replaced Tom’s bread), I plan to do very little but meet Gary Delaney for a pear cider in the Pleasance. Tomorrow, I fancy I may see Justin’s show, The Boiled Egg On The Beach (his show last year was one of my favourites: good, honest, northern comedy from a man who was in Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric – he showed me his holiday snaps on his iPad from the filming and the subsequent Cannes outing), and then perhaps Gutted. I may run into @cockbongo. There may be home cooking, as it’s a Sunday. I was excited to find my show listed in the Guardian Guide today. I don’t really expect that much coverage. I cut my finger on Friday morning while cleaning the metal filter on the shower, and, having had a plaster on it all day yesterday, I unwrapped it today to find a scar that looks a bit like a star. Justin says it’s my first one-star. I think it looks like a tiny stigmata, which allowed me to throw in this new joke this morning:

I’m not saying I’m Richard Herring. That is for other people to say.

You have to be a fan of Richard’s work to get it. It got a laugh. I don’t really want Richard to come and see my show, as I know it will cause hm pain if he has to grudgingly admit that he likes any of it.

PS: A load of fireworks just went off, at about 9pm, probably at the Castle, and the seagulls of Edinburgh have gone mad. It’s a lovely, clear evening.

Laughter-funded

This is a poster advertising a comedy gig on Wednesday in London which has been organised to help fund Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe, specifically the events programme, whose costs were not initially met by ad revenue, as expected. It’s a simple cause: come to a gig with three amazing headliners and support us, and you will be helping to ensure that 3,513 performances of 230 shows take place, for free, within the Fringe at Edinburgh this year. The very existence of the Free Fringe is potentially at stake.

I am appearing on Wednesday, too – and delighted to help – but it seems I come under “AND MUCH MORE!”  Quick links for tickets here and here.