New Statesman 2009
28 May 2009I spent four hours driving up the motorway on Saturday night to do a show in Stockton-on-Tees. I was quite excited; I'd never been to Stockton before. I walked out on stage, to an audience that included a group of 16 . . . lads, youths, hooligans? I don't know what you call them these days, but by the end of the night they definitely wouldn't have seemed out of place at a tea party held by Nick Griffin. They were celebrating a 30th birthday and had decided to come and watch me.
They all sat at the back, and they punctuated my show with sounds. When I mentioned that my parents were from Pakistan, they started making so-called Asian noises and shouting things like: "Would you like a curry?" and "When are you going back home?" At that point, I still had 55 minutes to go.
This may sound unbelievable, but it wasn't until the next morning that I realised they were being bigoted. During the show, I humoured them, bantered with them and included them. They actually made me laugh, and I made them laugh, but there came a point when they were all very drunk and very rowdy, and there was obviously peer pressure for some of them to be abusive.
This escalated to the point where they were ruining the show for the rest of the audience - who were enjoying themselves. "Where is security when you need it?" I shouted to the guys on the sound desk.
Telling the group to be quiet was repaid with the kind of menacing stares Mike Tyson would be proud of, so, out of fear, no one said or did anything. But everyone tutted in that very English way, like when someone takes too long at a cashpoint machine. I tried to get the rest of the audience to sing "Happy Birthday" to the group, but they didn't want to.
But the show actually went very well. People laughed, and in a strange way I enjoyed it.
As I was leaving the building, two of the lads jeered and sneered, taunting me. I ignored them. Then they fell silent, realising that the rest of their group was not supporting them. From a distance I heard one say: "Sorry, I didn't mean it."
I liked this group of lads. And I know that they liked me, but they seemed ashamed of liking me. They liked me - but they've been conditioned to not like someone like me.
I received emails the next day from people in the audience. They were all the same. They read: "I really enjoyed your show, except for those lads. I hope you don't think we're all like that in Stockton."
The next day I performed at the Guardian Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye. It should be called Hair-on-Wye. There were more dishevelled, intellectual hairstyles on display than you'd see at an Einstein lookalike contest. The grey bouffants were out in full force (worn mostly by men), and I just knew when I saw them that they came armed with opinions.
The police always turn up when they're not needed: for some reason they were all over the festival. I've never heard of anyone being butchered to death by an A C Grayling type.
I performed to 800 Guardian readers I'd never seen that many in one place before. Fighting was replaced by debating. I felt much safer than I had in Stockton. The closest it got to heckling was people offering each other Polos and discussing jokes on the way out. No one followed me out of the festival jeering or sneering. Instead, as soon as the show was over, I was given a rose.
It was a privilege to be at Hay, to perform to people who don't feel the need to ask me if I want a curry in the middle of my set. But it's easy performing to Polo eaters in sandals. I missed those Stockton lads. I looked out at all the grey, intellectual bouffants and I thought: "It's not the same without them. I don't feel like I'm working."