Tag Archives: edinburgh fringe

Not sure whether my mistake was putting all my eggs in one basket or choosing a basket called “The Egg Destroyer”

29 Nov

I got my first ever negative review for my last blog post:

“Not interesting. Doesn’t make your employer look funny enough” – my former employer.

I don’t work for a comedian anymore. It ended really badly. Hard to work out why spending my early twenties working for a man in his late fifties in exchange for a place to stay ended really badly. But life is about learning from our mistakes so that we might grow into better, stronger people and, as Obi-Wan Kenobi famously said in Star Wars Episode IV, “If you strike me down, I shall lie face-down on my mum’s sofa for 3 months lamenting my existence and then get a job in a warehouse because this alcohol habit won’t fund itself!!!!!!!!”

AM I RIGHT GUYS?????

I’m not going to write about what happened to me 2012-14 right now because I haven’t worked out how to make it funny yet. I judge how traumatic something is by how long it takes me to write about it. It took me 6 days to write about the death of my brothers’ dad in 2010; this one’s been over a year so far, so fingers crossed the zingers are coming soon lol!!!!!

I moved back to my mum’s house last year. Then I did seasonal work at Boots warehouse over the festive period because nothing says “Christmas” like leaping out of your childhood bed and running downstairs in your pyjamas at 5AM so you can stuff Lynx gift sets into cardboard boxes for £7/hour.

I’d been looking for jobs for a while because there’s only so long that someone can derive sustenance from Netflix and self-loathing, and after being rejected from every minimum wage cleaning job in my town and running out of Buzzfeed listicles to re-read I decided to sign on. And then I went for a quick interview at a warehouse so that the people at the Jobcentre who arranged it would like me and was still there 10 hours later wearing hi viz and steel-capped boots. The Jobcentre people had said that I had to “dress smartly, because it is an interview”, so I dressed smartly, because it was an interview, and when I arrived one of the other 100 people there for our induction and immediate start said “haha! You look like you’re going for an interview!” and yet again I felt like the only child in school who didn’t get the letter about non-uniform day.

I worked there from the end of November until the beginning of January. Boots do not think very highly of their staff. They outsource their Christmas hiring and firing to two agencies that do not think very highly of anyone at all. Less than 24 hours before Christmas Eve, everyone got a text saying “just a reminder that all days off on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day are cancelled and your bonus will be affected if you do not attend” and I was immediately impressed by their clever trick of introducing brand new information with the phrase “just a reminder”, and latterly impressed by their clever trick of threatening to reduce or revoke a bonus that nobody ended up getting anyway.

If you write “Boots” backwards it spells “GLaDOS”

I quit that job at the beginning of January because we were all about to get laid off anyway, and took another one at a food testing laboratory in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. It paid less than the warehouse, but the people were great and I got to wear a lab coat like all of my friends that actually graduated. My job was to put things in a blender and then take things out of the blender and then clean the blender so that I could put more things in the blender. The lab was near the site of the since-demolished biscuit factory that my mum worked at before my birth similarly demolished her job prospects and sense of self, and I was glad that two years at the University of Oxford had made me so socially mobile that I’d ended up at least 100 yards from where I’d existed as an ovum.

I was only there for six months, but I got super attached to the people I was working with. It was a small group, and everyone was extraordinarily generous and funny and likeable. I left at the beginning of July so that I could focus on studying again, and I don’t think I’ve felt so moved leaving a job since my old boss told me I was the worst thing to happen to him since his ex-wife stole his children.

In August I went to Edinburgh for the Fringe. I spent the month working for and sharing a flat with the Freestival team, who were an absolute joy and upon whom I was an unmitigated curse, and performing my increasingly successful solo show “Heather Has A Panic Attack” on various walls and benches around the city. Then in September I moved back to Oxford, and since then my time has been divided pretty evenly between studying so that I can finish my degree and staring at my ceiling wondering how much longer I’ll be able to maintain the idea that I can finish my degree.

This is the closest that I’ve come to returning to university. Literally the closest; this is the first time that I’ve moved back to Oxford. More than that, though: it’s much harder to hide from academia when you’re living in an affluent city that’s suffocated by it, than it is when you’re in a former mining town whose economy predominantly relies on card shops and William Hill. Also, it’s easier for me to get in the right frame of mind to study in Oxford because it has a strong association with the time I spent here doing just that, whereas my hometown has a strong association with the time I spent there drinking unbranded whisky and watching back-to-back episodes of Bojack Horseman. But saying that this is the closest that I’ve come to returning to university is like saying that this is the closest that I’ve come to writing a good analogy. It’s technically true but ultimately meaningless; I’m still prohibitively far. Nobody really believes that I’m going to graduate. I sure don’t. I’m coming to the end of my fourth year out now. That’s more than a degree’s worth of years out from my degree. I have to keep a journal so that I know what I did yesterday, and now I’m trying to remember esoteric details of biological processes that I learnt about when I was 20.

"esoteric details"

“esoteric details”

My tutor thinks that I should take another year out. Her reasoning is good: before I took a break at the end of 2011 I’d already done the first term of my final year, so I’m due to formally resume my studies in January. However, I’ve been away for so long that the course has changed significantly, so she thinks that the university should grant me permission to start my final year over and come back in October rather than January 2016. My ideas for funding it are less good: I do not have any ideas for funding it. Sitting an extra term means paying an extra term’s tuition – and there’s a year and a half between now and when I’d finish where I’d need to be concentrating on getting back on track with my course rather than working full-time, but where I’d also need to pay rent and eat something other than dust and wishes.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I think my chances of graduating are vanishingly small, but that things will probably work out okay in the grand scheme of things. For now, I think I like being back. I never really settled in the first time round. I became fixated on the fact that I didn’t really meet any people like me here – kids from poor families – and spent so much of my time feeling inadequate and telling myself that I only got offered a place because Oxford had to meet some kind of Poor Person Quota that I never allowed myself to feel comfortable or really engage. But now I’m older, it seems a little less intimidating. I still feel intellectually and academically inadequate, and I still find the university itself tremendously intimidating, but the students that I was intimidated by are now between four and seven years younger than me. I was a kid last time. And I’m not sure I qualify as an adult this time, but it’s harder to feel quite so intimidated by 18 to 21-year-olds when you are not 18 to 21 – even if they talk fancy, went to the kind of schools that fostered a profound self-assurance within them that you rarely find elsewhere, and are managing to complete their degrees without taking four years out to curl into the foetal position and stare at walls.

Another day at the comedy coalface

23 Jul

It’s been almost 250 years since William Blake saw “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars” on Peckham Rye, and almost 18 hours since Heather Stevens accidentally interrupted some doggers.

Hey you guys long time no rehash things that I’ve already posted on twitter and facebook!  It’s been 6 months since my last blog post! I have achieved nothing! I work in comedy! I am broke and broken!

I’ve worked in comedy for over a year and a half now and I can’t decide whether my favourite part is writing jokes, rewriting jokes or crying myself to sleep cradling a whisky bottle. Going into the comedy industry and expecting to stay of sound mind is like aggressively jumping on a landmine and expecting to stay of sound leg.

I don’t really know how this happened, much like everything else that has ever happened. When I was at school, my friend Tom used to tell me that he could see me ending up as a comedian, but I think he probably said it in the same way that you might shout to your friend that you think they should become a professional chef over the noise of all of their dinner guests vomiting and suffering from sudden and explosive diarrhoea. Tom also said to me, in biology class one time: “Heather is the perfect name for you, because heather is a rough and abrasive shrub and you have a rough and abrasive personality,” which is where my “AbrasiveShrub” moniker is stolen from. I have never had an original thought.

I am not a comedian. I work for a comedian. I work for Lewis Schaffer. I don’t really have a job title. Lewis tends to refer to me as “assistant”, “writer” or “atrocious example of a human being” depending on how terrible I’m being at my job, and most of the time I’m pretty terrible.

In December I ran into my friend Alom at another friend’s birthday party and told him that I worked for a comedian. A few months later, Lewis’s twice-weekly Free until Famous show that he’d been doing at the same place for several years moved to a new venue, and since I was going to be at the show to record it anyway I offered to stand outside the old venue beforehand to catch anyone that went there by mistake. It started raining, so I was standing outside this dubious-looking karaoke bar wearing a massively oversized green t-shirt with the words “FREE COMEDY” emblazoned on the front, holding some soggy flyers and looking very damp and vaguely homeless when Alom walked past and awkwardly said hello and now he thinks I said “I work for a comedian” in the same way that someone that cleans the offices might say “I work for Google”.

Some of the things I have to do are so straightforward that I will say, with uncharacteristic confidence and hubris, that I’m moderately okay at them: making sure emails are replied to, submitting dates to press and listings sites, recording and transcribing parts of the live shows, editing material, booking transport to and from gigs, avoiding diary clashes, registering for Edinburgh Fringe, helping put together material for this year’s show at Edinburgh Fringe, telling people reading my blog that they should buy tickets for this year’s show at Edinburgh Fringe, making sure posters and flyers are designed, doing a frickin’ parade, helping write press releases. A press release we wrote a couple of weeks ago was described as “nothing short of genius” in this week’s Independent on Sunday, which will go on my Edinburgh Fringe poster when I do my one-woman show about spending my twenties doing menial tasks for the most successful failed comedian in London in exchange for room and board, next to Charmian Hughes‘s description of me as “au pair for Lewis Schaffer’s career”.

Then there’s writing jokes for Lewis’s weekly live radio show on Resonance FM, which I am unfailingly awful at.  Most of this blog post has sat in my drafts folder since March. I am really bad at submitting things that I know aren’t good enough, which is the vast majority of what I produce. That is not compatible with live radio, because there’s a very clear and immovable deadline every week. At that point, everything has to be handed in regardless of whether I think it’s good enough or not, which makes every show an absolute ordeal for me. But it’s probably helped me, because if I hadn’t learnt to accept that if all I have is absolute dross then I’m going to have to submit absolute dross, this blog post would have stayed in my drafts folder for another four months.

If I were better at it, and if it were more lucrative, this would basically be my dream job. I work for an amazing person and I get to do some amazing things and find myself in preposterous situations. In January Lewis did a show with Jerry Sadowitz, George Galloway and Richard Dawkins and I ended up getting a free lunch with them. Conversation highlight:

Me: What’s that stuff in the crab shell?

Richard Dawkins: It is crab.

Afterwards I was standing downstairs and a stranger handed me his cloakroom ticket and told me to fetch his hat.

And last month Zach Galifianakis came to see Lewis’s show at the Leicester Square Theatre, and it was amazing to see a global comedy megastar still find time to support live stand-up by performing for Zach Galifianakis.

Because I work for a comedian, a lot of people ask me whether I want to end up on the stage too. The answer is always no, because I am incapable of making eye contact and adequate conversation with one person, let alone plural person. I have been running Oxford Skeptics in the Pub for over two years now, and have still failed to introduce any of the speakers because I am debilitatingly shy. Which is why when I was asked if I would co-host Winchester Science Festival on Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th July with Neil Denny of Little Atoms fame, I said yes.

I’m not sure what I was thinking. I initially said no but was berated by my friends. Also, as soon as I’d turned it down I felt like I’d done something stupid, because it was such a ludicrous thing for someone like me to be invited to do that it seemed unlikely I’d have a similar opportunity again. I don’t understand why I’ve been asked to do it. I’ve been to Winchester Science Festival every year, and every year it is absolutely wonderful, and every year the line-ups are consistently brilliant, and every year there is literally no point where a 23-year-old has a nervous breakdown on stage, which might be what the organisers felt like they’d been missing.

When I did eventually say yes, my intention was to introduce every speaker at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub between then and now so that I’d at least have some limited experience of doing words at people by the time the festival came around. But every month I’d get to the pub and every month I’d lose my nerve. It’s hard to explain the level of fear that the prospect of talking to a crowd draws from me, because I even get anxious every time I go out and see people that I know. There aren’t even three days left between now and the festival and I don’t know what to do because I genuinely can’t see any way that I’m going to pull it off and even if I make it to the stage I’m probably just going to go on fire.

Luckily for you guys, Neil Denny is brilliant and an actual proper professional doer of things, and so is Simon Watt, who is hosting the talks on Friday 25th, so the festival is still going to be amazing. Friday’s day tickets are sold out, but there’s a bunch of free stuff going on, and there are some day tickets left for Saturday and Sunday, and you should buy them because the line-up is fantastic – speakers like Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Helen Czerski and Lucy Rogers – and there’s a chance that you will also get to see me go on fire.

I have to go and prepare now by spending the next three days curling into a ball and crying.

My life is like a terrible sitcom.

12 Sep

The Olympics, huh? What was that all about? AM I RIGHT? HAHA!

SOMETHING ABOUT SYRIA ALSO.

I can’t write topical jokes so I’m going to tell you about a farcical situation that I put myself in at considerable expense and for no reason whatsoever last week.

Also by “last week” I mean “the week beginning 23rd July” but I am terrible at blogging and also IT’S CALLED CREATIVE LICENSE I’M AN ARTIST SHUT UP.

Last week – LAST WEEK – was pretty full-on. I spent the previous weekend at the thoroughly excellent inaugural Winchester Science Festival organised by the also thoroughly excellent James Thomas, and then I went back to London for two days to work, and then I went to Oxford to relaunch Oxford Skeptics in the Pub which I seem to have inexplicably taken charge of without, so far, destroying. Actually it’s going really well – I haven’t accidentally started a brawl or made a speaker go on fire or anything. And then I went back home to South Derbyshire so I could attend my grandmother’s funeral after which, in a state of significant sleep-deprivation, residual panic and subdued grief, I made a decision that was comically ridiculous.

I had never applied for a job before 5th July. I am 21 years of age and I had never applied for a job. I’d had jobs. I’d had a job in London since April that I kind of fell into. But I’d never applied for jobs because I’d always assumed that I wouldn’t get them. I wouldn’t even apply for vacancies in the local supermarket, so convinced was I of my unemployability. But after I kind-of-accidentally got this job in London, I think I finally began to accept that it was my own convictions about how unemployable I was that were, at least partly, ensuring my continued lack of employment. So when I saw a vacancy at the beginning of July for a role throughout August – which was when I was due to be leaving my London job – at the Fringe Shop in Edinburgh – which is where I quite like spending my Augusts – I thought, “fuck it, why not?”

And then I thought, “LOTS OF REASONS WHY NOT” so I was all like, “STOP SHOUTING IT WAS RHETORICAL” and applied anyway.

I didn’t expect to hear anything back. And I didn’t hear anything back, for a while. And then last Tuesday – don’t pretend like you’re not on board – last Tuesday I got a call inviting me to an interview at the Fringe Shop that Thursday. That’s the Fringe Shop on Edinburgh High Street. That’s Edinburgh in Scotland. And I thought, “Well I’m not working, but I’m not working because I’m going to my grandmother’s death party. Also, Edinburgh is FAR.” So I said I couldn’t make it and they asked whether I could make Friday and I said it was probably a no, but that I’d call them back. And on Thursday – the morning of my grandmother’s funeral – I called back and I said no. And then immediately after the funeral I think my brain had temporarily forgotten what “rational” meant and I called them again and said yes. Yes, I will get a train to London in 3 hours in order to get on a coach for 9 hours to come to Edinburgh to be interviewed for a poorly paid job that I have little-to-no chance of getting. SEE YOU TOMORROW!

Most of the next 36 hours merged into an indiscriminate fuzz of regret and bafflement. By the time I got into London, the megabus that I’d planned to get had sold out and only the expensive decadence of National Express remained. It was at this stage, having already resigned myself to the fact that I definitely wouldn’t get the job even if I did travel to Scotland, that I should have cut my losses and given up. But no, in for a penny, in for £40; I was determined to see this one through to its inevitably dispiriting end.

I’d spent so long pissing about trying to find a cheaper coach that by the time I’d booked, I had no time left to eat anything before I had to run for the coach. The coach was half an hour late leaving London, so I could have eaten something before I had to run for the coach. I could have eaten something and then walked to the coach. I wished I’d walked to the coach. My leg was hurting because I used to be a cripple and I’d ran for the coach. There was a woman talking into her phone at an unnecessary volume in the seat in front of me and I started to worry that I’d been naive to think that a 9 hour overnight coach journey could just be spent sleeping, but after a while the vehicle settled into silence and I was finally overwhelmed with the exhaustion that I’d been doing my best to fight for the past week.

I’d been naive to think that a 9 hour overnight coach journey could just be spent sleeping. I must have slept for a good 3, maybe even 4 minutes before we pulled into Milton Keynes, where Captain Cockwash boarded the coach and decided that he should sit next to me. He was with a group of friends celebrating a 30th birthday, and when he sat down he pulled out a pack of Fosters and said, “ALL RIGHT LADS? HAHAHAHAHA!” and then something about breasts and it just continued like that, really. It continued like that until about 2.30am, at which point the coach broke down. The coach broke down and we were stuck on the hard shoulder somewhere in the East Midlands – somewhere frustratingly close to where I’d started out 8 hours ago – for two hours. I already had a residual, if mostly-subdued, fear of motorways from when I was 10 and my brother’s two best friends were killed by a lorry on the M5, so by this stage my thoughts had drifted from “WHY AM I HERE I AM UNEMPLOYABLE” to “WHY AM I HERE I AM GOING TO DIE.”

We started moving again at 4.30am, in a new coach, and this time I was sat next to a woman who kept falling asleep on me and then looking startled and vaguely offended every time she woke up. As the sun started to rise, I tried to work out whether I’d be able to make the 11am coach back to London. My interview was supposed to be at 10am and I’d lost all motivation to gain the job or make the most of the fact that I could spend a day in Edinburgh. I’d forgotten to bring a jacket, I hadn’t eaten for 12 hours, I was tired, my grandmother was dead, it was 6am on my eldest brother’s birthday, my whole family was at home for the first time in months and I was on an uncomfortably cold coach two hundred miles away from where I wanted to be in order to do something that I no longer wanted to do. And I think that lack of enthusiasm positively shone through when I did eventually find myself on Edinburgh High Street, 2 and a half hours later than planned, and walked into the Fringe Shop.

The interview itself, looking back, was an adorable clusterfuck. I had absolutely nothing left to give, desperately wanted to go home, and my tone throughout was what can only be described as apologetic. That’s something that is reasonably easy to cover up in writing, but in person it’s much harder to disguise my relentless feelings of guilt. So my internal monologue of “I know this is awful and I’m sorry” when I’m filling in an application form is much easier to temporarily suffocate than my implicit external monologue of “I know this is awful and I’m sorry” when I’m sitting in front of someone and trying to talk to them. When they started the interview by asking me to tell them about myself, I looked baffled for a few seconds and then quite bluntly told them that I’d never had a job interview before and didn’t really know what I was doing. When they asked me why they should hire me over the other people they’d interviewed, for a fleeting moment I considered actually answering the question like a normal human person but then I realised that I was absolutely incapable of that and was all like, “Uh, well I guess you should hire me over the other people you’ve interviewed if if I’m better than the other people you’ve interviewed? I don’t know who else you’ve interviewed. Don’t hire me if I’m terrible” because I’m terrible. I told them that I was “quite good” at sales, and I think that my use of the descriptive term “quite good” when attempting to sell myself indicated clearly enough that I was not at all good at sales. I think I might also have used the phrase “laid-back” when asked to describe my character, but by then my internal monologue was screaming too violently for me to commit anything to memory.

They told me that they aimed to let people know if they’d been successful by lunchtime and that I should keep an eye on my phone. I knew that I didn’t need to keep an eye on my phone. Satisfied that I had once again secured my continued lack of employment, I walked back to the coach station to see if there were any seats left on the 11am coach back to London. There were no seats left on the 11am coach back to London. I wondered how so many people could be taking a coach out of Edinburgh at 11am on a Friday and imagined that it was full of jobless 21-year-olds and their broken minimum-wage dreams. I asked when the next coach that I could get was and they said 9pm. I wished I’d brought a jacket and eaten something and not ran for that coach 12 hours ago.

When I got back into London the next morning I realised that I’d lost my Oyster card so I sat on the floor of Victoria Coach Station lamenting my existence for a bit but it didn’t really help so I bought a new Oyster card. And then at 6.30am I stumbled out of King’s Cross Station and, staring at my phone and trying to think of something witty to say on twitter so that I could glean a modicum of affirmation from strangers on the internet to fill the gaping hole of need that the past 36 hours had torn, I almost walked into a tall man. We did that awkward pavement dance thing where you both flail your arms and try to walk on the opposite side of the path from the other person, and when I looked up at the man to apologise I realised that it was Gordon Brown. And that it was absolutely perfect, necessary and inevitable that on the day that I crossed paths with a former world leader, I would be smiling meekly and apologising for being in their way.

I didn’t get the job. I did spend August in Edinburgh. I volunteered at a venue for the month and they gave me a free room. I was doing front of house, so mostly I spent my time being told how appalling I was by people who turned up too late to be allowed into the shows they wanted to see, and learning that poor time-keeping does not preclude excellent judgement of character.

The year out‘s going pretty well so far.

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