According to my sat nav the trip from Kendal to Aldershot would take around about the same time as the jaunt from Perth to Chorley, but this time it wasn't going to be so easy. I was feeling very tired and the outskirts of Birmingham were not as inspiring as the Scottish (sorry Scotch, nearly forgot myself there for a second) hills. There were no real hold-ups or delays, but my head was heavy and fugged up and this was the hardest drive of the tour thus far.
I got to Aldershot at about 5.30 and tried to relax and get into the zone, but a pepperoni pizza probably didn't help my energy levels. I felt weary and stultified on stage and during the first half started feeling really hot and a little unwell and feared I might pass out. I don't think the audience would have realised and aside from a couple of points where I waffled a little bit as I tried to focus my mind it all held together. But the 27 gigs in the last 27 days (I did two in Bristol) as well as the four 6Music shows were at last taking their toll. And there's another three gigs and another radio show before I get a day off. Perhaps an on stage heart attack would be the kindest thing.
I was very much looking forward to getting the second half done and zooming up the M3 to spend the night in my own bed with my own funny girlfriend, so overall was hoping not to collapse beforehand, but as it happened the second half of the show was going to be eventful enough to wake me up.
Not for the first time I was going to have a little trouble in this venue. Nearly six years ago (and hasn't John Oliver done well in that time) I was almost in a fight in this room
. Tonight, all was swinging along pretty nicely until I got to the bit about the BNP leaflet. I read out the bit which says "It's not racist to oppose mass immigration..." and left a dramatic pause as usual so that I can add, "No that's right, it's not racist to oppose mass immigration, they're right." But before I could do that a voice chipped in, "No, it's not."
"I know," I said, "I was about to say that it wasn't."
"It's not though," said the man who I could only see a dim outline of in the second of third row. He was big. That was all I could say.
"Yes, I was about to say that."
He made some remark about Pakistanis and Africans and I realised we were probably coming at this from a different angle. But for the moment we were at least in agreement that it wasn't racist to oppose mass immigration. Not that this man seemed to realise it. However much I told him that he was right thus far he carried on trying to defend himself, though distancing himself a little from the BNP by saying he supported UKIP.
In a way I was quite pleased that I actually had someone in the audience who sympathised with the BNP - my audience is unsurprisingly mainly liberal and so I am preaching to the choir a little in slagging off DickIbegyourpardonNick Griffin (though hopefully challenging those people a little by pointing out their culpability in the BNP success). But of course if I had an audience of BNP supporters I was unlikely to convert them with my rhetoric. As this guy was clearly showing. He wasn't even prepared to listen to the bit where I thought he was right. But for the moment I relished the challenge he was presenting, though with a slightly heavy heart as I thought it might wreck the show. But I carried on enjoying the comedy of him saying "It's not racist to oppose mass immigration" and me saying, "Yes, it's not racist to oppose mass immigration."
But then I added, with a little more passion than usual perhaps, "The thing is mate, no one is proposing mass immigration," and did the bit about how no party was encouraging immigration in their manifesto. But he disagreed, arguing that Labour were opening the doors to mass immigration and letting everyone in. I told him he was wrong about that and the rest of the audience were becoming annoyed and restless with the interruption and the thick-headed nature of the guy attempting to make his point. I tried to move on but he said, "Look I've paid my fifteen pounds and so I should have my say," perhaps misunderstanding the nature of theatrical performance. I pointed out that everyone had paid their money and so maybe he should wait until they had all had their say if that was the case, or maybe he should respect that fact that they might prefer to hear the show rather than his utterances. "There are a billion political refugees in the world. Are we going to let them all come into this country?"
"No, we're not. It's not going to happen. There are 60 million people in this country so clearly all those political refugees are not here. That's mathematics."
"I enjoyed the first half," he pontificated, "But now you've gone all liberal. So was the racism in the first half ironic then?"
Ironically enough given my worries that Al Murray's audience might be taking him on face value, he had clearly thought that the stuff I had done about "racists having a point" was straight up.
There was a part of me that wanted to explore this further and was interested in challenging my own beliefs as well as his own. I had one of the people convinced by those right wing ideas of everything being the fault of immigrants and the doors of the country being wide open and was I just going to let the opportunity go? But I also had to think of the majority who had paid to see the show and also knew that he was not going to listen to anything I had to say (as he clearly hadn't so far) so pressed on asking that he open his mind and try to hear what was coming up about the way immigrants were being used by the right wing in the same way as Jews were by the Nazis as scapegoats.
He seemed happy to shut up for the moment, though was clearly disappointed about the direction my racist show had now taken. There was a bit of banter also from a table of younger lads at the front, but it was as good natured as it was ridiculous and poor and I had fun with them, mocking them for their non sequitur heckles.
There was a bit of a fire in my belly now and thoughts of tiredness and sluggishness were banished. But it wasn't over. When I got to the bit about freedom of speech my thick-necked and portly friend (who was not being physically intimidating and so I did not feel threatened at any point) came in wanting to have his freedom of speech. In a way this was sort of fair enough. I was saying that freedom of speech gave me the freedom to say that Carol Thatcher was wrong, and he was trying to do the same with what I was saying. But as keen as I am to get comment, there is a point where you can't keep interrupting a theatrical performance without destroying it and I had to think of the 140 people who had also paid fifteen pounds to see this show, so I told the man I would give him his money back if he left. He leapt at the chance, though almost feeling guilty and suggested that he should give me Â£7.50 back as he had seen half the show. I told him that I didn't want him to pay anything, but that he had to leave without further comment. Enjoying being the centre of attention he hung around for a while, feeling he had won because he had some money. It's quite a good way to get rid of someone as if they are the kind of person who values money above anything else they will leave thinking they have won, when everyone else will feel that the money was well spent and I am sure the SCOPE bucket did better tonight because of this gesture from me. He tried to keep making cracks about being disappointed by the liberalism of the show, but the rest of the audience gave him short shrift - one rather vociferously telling him to fuck off.
"Enjoy your money," I told him.
"I will!" he said as if this wasn't merely a refund, like he was a winner.
"I expect you will spend it on curry," I observed, which got a good laugh and left him, for once in the night, rather speechless.
It had been an amusing diversion and I only felt slightly reluctant that I had let the one person who really needed to hear the rest of the show leave the venue. But it would have done no good. Perhaps it shows up that ultimately all I am trying to do is pointless and that I will never reach people like him.
After he had gone his friend said, "The thing is he's got a black girlfriend."
"Why didn't you tell me that when he was here?"
After the show he was there waiting in the bar, of course and tried to engage with me again, repeating his claims that I had been funny to begin with and then spoiled it with my liberalism. I told him that I had paid not to speak to him and that he paid me Â£20 I would chat to him, but that I'd rather talk to the other people. The theatre manager stepped in to move him away from the table where I was signing programmes and he carried on barracking me for my liberalism. Which made me laugh as it reminded me of the conservative Catholic woman from Berwick and once again I thought that if I was upsetting such diverse elements as those two then I was probably on to something.
And being forty plus gigs into the tour it had been fun for me to have something else to deal with. The rest of Aldershot, ashamed no doubt that one of their number had embarrassed them so, were both apologetic and congratulatory. It had been a good show overall. The man was still crowing about his fifteen pounds, unaware that he had given me in return much more than fifteen pounds worth of value.
I had defeated him in the arena of the theatre (and yet left him feeling like a winner too, which is quite a neat trick). Perhaps in the greater arena of the world at large he and his kind will overcome me and mine.
I was aware that it was a partial fail at least for me. I had wimped out a little bit and I had just paid him to fuck off, which doesn't really square with my belief in freedom of speech. Had he discovered the chink in my armour? And what kind of joke might he have made about that question?
But maybe if we just offered all racists fifteen pounds to leave the country then that might be a solution. They would be happy and we wouldn't have to put up with their gorilla like bodies and opinions. Like most of his ilk he didn't seem to be quite as evolved as the rest of the audience.
But in the end I was just delighted to get home, though it felt surreal and strange to be home.