Monday, March 11, 2019

My Log 707 March 11 2019:Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 141; Fiction may seem stranger than fact; but in this case it has had the effect of triggering my memory of a strange event from 65 years ago

Even an aging memory subject to increasing failures (such as mine) can be triggered from time to time by a simple event, or even a phrase. I have had two such experiences over the weekend, and here I am rushing to confide news of them to a reading public that I am quite certain must be waiting with bated breath for just such information. Not! So here goes:
Item No. 1:  At the recommendation of my son I began to watch the latest offering of the gifted, but half-mad British comedian Ricky Gervais, whose shows, so far as I have seen them,  seem to vary from the sublime to the ridiculous.  His career as a star began with the original version of The Office in which he played this pompous, self-regarding, obtuse, absurd office manager, a show of such riveting, and occasionally infuriating,  quality that it was almost immediately copied in the United States, with a version that has proven to be even more popular.  
After that he had a wonderful series called Extras, in which he played the part of a forlorn sort of, half-successful film extra, eventually managing to get his own show that made him a star.  Although Gervais in real life is said to support numerous good causes, this show is notable for presenting his character as a sort of gormless chap without any sensitivity, willing and able to mildly insult even people who are trying unsuccessfully to combat personal problems. I found this show in which he was supported by his sidekick from his earlier success, Stephen Merchant, completely hilarious, and wouldn’t have missed an episode for my life.   I remember one scene in which, having just starred in a funny show before an appreciative audience, he stepped forward out of character to announce he had decided to retire, because (I am not quoting the exact words here) he was tired of getting laughs from an audience made up of people who seemed to be half-wits (or words to that effect.) The audience he addressed this to seemed rather put out; and so did I, feeling that such an insensitive insult could probably do no good, either for him, or his audience.
Later, he moved to the United States, got involved in making some really terrible films whose hallmark was that they were completely unfunny, but then he began to make charming shows starring a character who normally in TV would never have been given the time of day.  One such was Derek, a lovely show in which he played the role of a slightly mentally off-centre assistant in a nursing home for elderly people. His explanation for this was, according to Wikipedia: "Half my family are care workers. My sister works with kids with learning difficulties. My sister-in-law works in a care home for people with Alzheimer's. And four or five of my nieces work in old people's homes. I always write about what I know.”
It is worth mentioning here that in describing his humour, Wikipedia lists him as specializing in “cringe comedy, observational comedy, satire, insult comedy,” which gives some insight into his attitudes.
The reason I have described him as half-mad is that he filmed a small segment shot about the goings on while he was making Extras, which concentrated entirely on his felling Stephen Merchant, wrapping him securely in duct tape from head to foot, and laughing hysterically as if this was the funniest thing he had ever done. It was an incident that left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable, rather than amused.
Anyway, the reason I have mentioned him as Item No. 1 in this piece is that in his new show, After Life, he plays  a character the recent death of whose wife has sent him into the depths of nihilistic despair. (In real life Gervais is said to describe himself as an atheist and a humanist, both of which positions he seems unable to keep out of his shows.  Though there are funny moments in this new show, the  overall impact is rather one of strong moralistic persuasion, overwhelming everything else. On Wikipedia he is quoted as saying that, although he has lived with the same woman for almost 40 years,  "there's no point in us having an actual ceremony before the eyes of God because there is no God." He says he gave  up Christianity when he was eight. Similarly he has said he and his partner could not have children because they "didn't fancy dedicating 16 years of our lives. And there are too many children, of course.")
His character, Tony,  is working in a small English town for one of those newspapers that are given way for free. Though the predominant emotion served the audience is Gervais’s despair, much of the humour  is in the fatuous and helpless characters who keep turning up, desperate to have their names in the paper. One of these, who has really nothing to offer in the way either of news or distinction, comes regularly without success, until one day he invites the reporter to visit him in his home where he will show him something that will inevitably get his name into the paper. They are all keyed up for a big surprise as the fellow opens the door to his home,  but the surprise is bigger than they could have imagined: his house is full to the gunnel with throwaway items, some wrapped in huge plastic bags piled up to the ceiling, others just lying-about items of absolutely no value and of no interest to any newspaper, but that the poor fellow has spent his life accumulating.
This may sound far-fetched, but in fact I lived through exactly this experience in the first weeks I was in Canada in 1954. The only job I could get in journalism was as a reporter for the Northern Daily News, a terrible newspaper in the Thomson chain, in Kirkland Lake, a small mining town in the Abitibi district just across the provincial border from Quebec.
This fellow arrived in our office and begged that we come to look at his home because the authorities were on the point of condemning it and throwing him out, in the name of safety. We travelled not far across the border, and there in one of the  twin towns of Rouyn and Noranda, our informant led us to his house, opened the door for us with a flourish (exactly as had the character in Gervais’s sitcom), and there, lo and behold before us lay the biggest pile of trash I had ever seen, piles and piles of newspapers, plastic bags, magazines, and various other kinds of highly inflammable junk that the fellow had been ordered to clear out several times without any result, leading to the decision, in the name of fire prevention, to vacate the house so it could be either emptied of this rubbish or burned down.
This is one of the few assignments I remember during the three months I spent at that newspaper, whose tiny staff comprised guys, like myself, who couldn’t get any other job in Canadian journalism on arrival as immigrants: a New Zealander (me), a Jamaican, a South African and a scion of the British ruling class, descendant of the poet Wordsworth, comprised our reporting staff, and our photographer was a refugee from  Latvia, Fred Bruemmer,  who later became famous for his photographic studies of Canada’s Inuit people as they lived the last days of their traditional lives on the land.
We were certainly a disparate bunch, of whom two eventually received the Order of Canada.
(To be continued)

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