Man About Muppet

I like The Muppets, I really do.

But if I had undying, unconditional love for The Muppets then I wouldn't have a blog post to write today, so this is perhaps a good thing.

Incidentally, this will be one of those posts where I diss something a bit and then come around at the end to admitting that I really like it after all, despite my earlier disrespect.

And, yes, I know that I said that I liked them right at the start and so I don’t need to do it again at the end. Just… bear with me, I’m making this up as I go.


I think there’s a touch of The Emperor’s New Clothes about The Muppets now. We’re all so keen to be part of the nostalgia/cuteness bandwagon that we’ve lost sight of the wrinkles, the sagging, the hairy arse of it all.

The Muppets are most famous for the TV shows and I’ve got no gripe with them. I was there from 76 to 81, watching each episode as it came on, wondering who the guest would be, laughing along and enjoying them. They were good.  I also really loved the Muppets on Sesame Street, long before the Muppet Show appeared, I watched it much later into my teens that I probably should have but my alphabet skills were second to none.

I have more of a problem with the movies. People wet themselves over the movies and I don’t really see why. I find them flaccid and obvious and pumped up with utterly-forgettable show tunes. I include the much-revered Muppet Christmas Carol in this. God, people nearly die of ecstasy every Christmas when this rolls around yet again. Have they actually watched it? Can anyone remember a single note of the songs it is irrigated with? Does Michael Caine not completely sleepwalk through his phoned-in performance? I watched this again last December, surfing on a wave of twitter optimism and joy. I wasn’t wrong though, it takes a perfectly diverting story and renders it ordinary and plain.  Sorry. And this is by far the best of the films, in my opinion.  I’m excluding the most recent one from this little rant.  I will come to that.

My main issue with the whole Muppets thing is this reverential air that has grown around them. People remember them as being better than they were, I reckon. Yes they were good, so that makes things less clear-cut but I think, in our endless quest to find things from bygone years to yahoo about, we sometimes elevate things to a stature somewhat higher than that which they deserve. And we have come to revere the back story of the Muppets rather than the product itself. We love, now, to see Jim with his arm up Kermit’s arse as they gaze lovingly into each others eyes/buttons. We are nostalgic about the nostalgia rather than the thing. Does that even make any sense?  I don’t know.

Okay, I’ve come to it now so let’s change gear.  The new film is good. I like it a lot, actually.  It’s clever because it’s hit the zeitgeist as I have tried to describe it in the paragraph above. It is nostalgic, yes, but it is not nostalgic for The Muppets, it is nostalgic for the nostalgia of the Muppets.  It does also have the requisite bloody awful show tunes but there’s not as many as pads out the earlier films so… forgiven.

People love The Muppets for things that The Muppets just hijacked from other places.  ‘Ma na Ma na, for instance.  That was around for ages before the Muppets did their cover of it (and Animal did not sing it so forget about that). In fact, it goes back to 1968 and some dodgy Swedish sex mocumentary (where, again Animal did not perform).  The use of this song in the new film is perhaps the best illustration of the point I am trying to make.  It is funny, moving and nostalgic about nostalgia… but not necessarily about Muppets.

The best thing that came out of the movie series, by far, the thing that actually moves me quite a bit, is the only good song to ever emerge: The Rainbow Connection, written by Kenneth Ascher and Paul Williams. It’s a lovely song and lyrically brilliant referencing, as it does ‘Wizard of Oz’ and then ‘Pinocchio’. The image of the little frog playing his banjo in the swamp and the lyrics ‘Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices, I’ve heard them call my name… I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it, there’s something that I’m supposed to be…”.  This combination is a powerful metaphor for a creative struggle that I think exists within many of us.  The drive to go out into the world and be our best.  It’s just brilliant and it never fails to touch me.

So you see friends, as promised, I do like the Muppets after all.

Another three minutes of your life wasted.

Derby Chick

I’m in love with this Roller Derby Chick
She makes my head go round and round
I think I’ll have to make a little oil slick
To try and slow my baby down.

She’s faster than a speeding bullet
She’s faster than a speeding train
I’m in love with my Roller Derby Chick
She’s racing round here in my brain.

I’m in love with this Roller Derby Chick
She keeps me up both night and day
I got to keep an eye upon my Roller Derby Girl
To make sure she doesn’t roll away.

She’s faster than a speeding speedboat
She’s faster than a speeding car
I’m in love with this Roller Derby Girl
My lady Roller Derby Star

I’m in love with this Roller Derby Chick
I go and see her every night
Sometimes she waves to me as she rolls on by
So I know that everything’s all right

She’s faster than a speeding hurricane
Faster than anybody knows
I’m holding onto my Roller Derby Girl
As round and round and round she goes.

When all the Jokes were New

There was this golden era where all the jokes were new.

It was 1981.  I was living in Dublin, having just started college there.  When I say I was ‘living in’, that makes it sound all grown-up and cosmopolitan.  In fact I was a shivering little seventeen year old who had never slept in any bed other than his home one and who lived every week in perpetual countdown for the six o’clock bus back home from O’Connell Street.

I was too young for third level education, I think, but I had moved unrelentingly through school, finished at sixteen and had my degree earned before I turned twenty. Yes, I was a smart little shit.  I was also the youngest in the class by far but I was quick on my feet and enjoyed company and so got on all right with everyone and made some lifelong friends, as you do.

And then there came the jokes, the golden era of jokes.  I have always loved jokes and have an unassailable recall of them.  Like films, I seem unable to ever forget a joke although I pull them out less and less as I get older.  The opportunities to joke seem to become more sparse. Go figure.

In the college, people had jokes, hundreds of them, and I had never heard them before.  Some new joke source much have just emerged and I was there at the very moment that it happened so there was jokes and people were telling them to each other with glee and I was soaking them up with even more glee.

Every Friday evening I would get that O’Connell Street bus home and, when I got there, quite late, I would meet my friends in the pub.  They would look at me expectantly and say, “Well, what have you got?” and I would have jokes for them and I would make them laugh.

The jokes were often of a kind, they were rather cruel and rude and gleeful at misfortune, they weren’t racist or sexist or such, they were hard and unafraid and they pulled laughs out of you even when you felt it might not be right to do so.  You probably know the sort of thing I mean, ‘Petal and Porky, The Kid Who Was Only an Eye’, ‘The Strange Man and His Balloon’.  No, don’t ask me to tell them, they don’t work written down.  They are of a strange verbal tradition.  You can’t read them and laugh.

And how lucky was I to be there at the very moment in history when all these wonderful jokes broke into the world?  How fortuitous was that?

Of course you’re ahead of me, as ever.  You know what I know now but didn’t ever suspect at the time.  You know that there is no golden era of jokes, not in history.  There is only my personal golden era of jokes.  These gags had been around for ever.  The men in the trenches in The Somme had probably told each other about Petal and her Dog Porky.  Spike Milligan and his war buddies for-sure passed them around.  The jokes had always been there, it was me who was new.

Did you have your own golden era of jokes, when all the gags were funny and new?  If you did it was probably at some completely different time to mine.

But I bet the jokes were the same.

Cane Toads and Diaries

How are things with the Cane Toads in Australia these days, I wonder?

When Patricia and I travelled around Oz on buses, back in 1990, one of my oddest ambitions was to see a real live Cane Toad.  Odd, I know, but I’m an odd fella.  

Actually, there was a good reason for my strange infatuation.  There had been this great documentary film in 1988 called ‘Cane Toads – An Unnatural History’ and I had really liked it.  

You should try and see it if you ever get a chance. Although it documented the introduction of Hawaiian Cane Toads to Australia in 1935 and their subsequent rise as a super pest, the film was actually much more about the wonderful local people who had to contend with the dreaded toads on a day to day basis.

So, yes, I wanted to see a Cane Toad and as the bus eased across the border of the Northern Territory and into Queensland on the Barkly Highway, into Cane Toad Country, I sat into the jump seat beside the driver and asked what my chances were of seeing a real live Cane Toad.

He looked at me in much the same way that the bus driver from Perth to Melbourne had done when I asked him about Kangaroos.  Yes, he reckoned I might see one all right.

Our first bus journey had been the Perth/Melbourne one and it had taken 47 straight hours.  The journey, stopping only for sandwiches and wees, was the equivalent of bussing from London to Moscow.  I liked to sit up with the driver through part of the night as we thundered across the Nullabor Plain toward Kalgoorlie, where Skylab fell down.  “Will we see a kangaroo?” I asked and he looked at me for the idiot I undoubtedly was.  There were many Kangaroos on that midnight drive across the wastelands.  Huge manic-looking hitchhikers, poised at the edge of the road, who were as likely as not to jump straight into the headlights of the bus.  I was the last thing seen by some of the first kangaroos I ever met.

The look was similar from the Queensland bus driver.  He reckoned, in the weary, reserved manner of bus drivers the world over, that my chances of seeing a Cane Toad were high.

We stopped at a gas station and I asked the lady on the forecourt if there were any Cane Toads about.  He answer was memorable.  “I had one in the toilet less than an hour ago.”  She explained how they liked to seek out water and that it was always wise to have a peer into the bowl before you sat down, just in case one was wallowing down there.

That was great, but still no Cane Toad.

If I was just telling a story, I would now make my main Cane Toad moment as the first time I saw one, that would work best for the story and, indeed, I would normally do that, having all the liar qualities that a story teller needs.  Alas it doesn’t work for the timeline or the geography of our journey and I am aware that some of my Australian buddies might read this and know immediately that I was talking shite.  So I’ll just play it straight and admit that I saw lots of Cane Toads over the next few days.  They weren’t hard to find.  There was even an odd thing where stuffed cane toads were sold as souvenirs.  They were inevitably posed in ludicrous ways such as playing the guitar or drinking a tiny can of Fosters.  I didn’t like them. I liked the Cane Toads for their anarchic uselessness and didn’t want to see them corralled  into some semi-useful role.

So my diary tells me it was at Mission Beach that I had my definitive Cane Toad moment.

I don’t often keep a diary (apart from this blog) but I kept copious notes of our journey around the entirety of Australia on the buses and it is a document I value quite highly.  It’s open on the desk in front of me now and it’s better than any photo album because I made every line of those memories myself.  It’s been fun writing this blog post, revisiting the words I wrote twenty two years ago and plotting the journey again on Google Maps.  I looked at some of the places we went, using Streetview and that’s an amazing memory trip too.

So, according to this diary of mine, we arrived at Scotty’s Beach House on Mission Beach on Tuesday 16th October 1990.  In sitting down to write this thing, I had forgotten how sick Trish had been there for three days. I had forgotten the joy of watching Mad Max on video with the original Australian accents, I had forgotten the wild truth-or-dare sessions by the pool which I watched nervously over my book.

But I hadn’t forgotten the Cane Toads.

On that first evening I was standing looking out the window over a wide sprinkled lawn to the back to the hostel.  Scotty himself came up and stood with me.  “Alright mate?” he said. 

“Yes, I’m just looking out for Cane Toads.”

Scotty laughed.  He pointed to a corner of the lawn where there was a little single spotlight shining on his ‘Beach House’ sign.  “Watch.”  Sure enough, as I watched the space under the light, I began to notice that the grass was twitching.  Dark lumps were mooching around in the leafy shadows beneath the sign.

“See them?  See the buggers?”

“God, yes,” I said, delighted with myself, “I never knew that about them.”

“Knew what?”

“That they are attracted to light.”

Scotty leaned over to the wall beside him and flicked a switch.  “They’re not,” he said, as the entire garden leapt alive with floodlighting.

There were Cane Toads everywhere.  They weren’t just in the light, that was just where I could see them.  They were everywhere. Hundreds upon hundreds of them.  I went out and walked on the lawn in the renewed darkness and it seemed that every footfall was pre-empted by a squelchy evacuation of the area by another lumbering toad.

It was the stuff that memories are made of.

As I write, I’m enjoying reading the diary so much that I want to leave you with a random extract from it, written on Friday 19th October 1990 on Magnetic Island.

I was loaned a book today by a guy who is as mad about films as I am.  I spent loads of time reading it and enjoyed it a lot.  It’s called ‘Watchmen’.  It’s a comic book and I might see if I can get Michael a copy for Christmas. He might just like it.  This guy who loaned it to me is a complete bullshit-artist though…

There's another story from the Australian diary here and there's some slightly different diary stuff here, if you're interested.

Living in my Place?

I’ve been wondering about how much I actually live in my town.

It sounds a silly question really.  It sounds like the answer is obvious.  I mean, I’m here all the time, I never go anywhere anymore.  The last time I left the country was 2008 and even day trips to elsewhere are thin enough on the ground.  So, yeah, I live here, of course I do.

But do I?  Really?

I am sure about many of the things that I really do live in and they may sound trite but they’re true.  I live in my family and I live in my home.  A bit obvious, perhaps, but I’m talking about more than ‘living’ in the literal sense here, I’m talking about where my head resides, you know what I mean?

My head resides in the books I read and the films and telly programmes I watch.  It resides quite a bit on the radio that I listen to and the music that I play.  It resides here, online, via twitter and FB and blogging and such.  It resides in the writing that I continue to do.

On some days, I’m just not so sure about my town.

I tend to flit through my town.  Head down, earphones in, sometimes buried in a book while walking, narrowly avoiding lampposts and grannies.  If a particular thought occurs and it wraps my mind up, I can find myself having stopped walking altogether while I think it out.  I’ll shuffle on then, embarrassed, having becoming conscious of this.

Things happen in my town that I know nothing about.  Good people pass away and I never hear of it, sports teams win prizes and it’s all beyond me.  Local News is passed around and analysed and mulled over… not by me though.

I like it here, I really really do.  It’s just that, sometimes, I feel like an island.  Except an island is not the right simile because I don’t just sit there like an island would, I go out and move through the town, I work here and eat here and breathe here.  It’s more like what being a ghost might be like.  Not quite but a little like that.  A ghost in my own town.

That’s on some days.

On other days I feel joined to the town as if by an umbilical cord.  On those days, everybody seems to know me and everybody wants to say hello.  People stop me and share their stories with me, shopkeepers wave out at me and even the traffic warden smiles knowingly.  I go to the theatre and I seem to be acquainted with every single member of the audience. I venture into the pub afterward and the barman has a fair idea what I might have.  The sounds and smells and texture of the town are as much a part of me as I have become of it, we are united, unassailable, one.

So do I live in my town?  Really live?

Well, some days I do and some days I don’t.

That was worth figuring out, wasn’t it?