The left-wing, anti-Tory, pro-Corbyn comedian Mark Steel came to sleepy Haywards Heath last weekend. His show, at the Clair Hall promised not to be about politics but he couldn’t resist a few pops at Cameron’s Government and the odd reference to the referendum on Europe. ‘Do you know one million Bulgarians can come here any day. We’re waiting. Any day now.’
He came to Haywards Heath about four years ago and played upon the rivalry between Haywards Heath and Burgess Hill. He knows what a dull town we live in. ‘It’s a little refuge from Brighton.’ Last time he said Haywards Heath was about as exciting as walking from one end of the curtain to the other. This time he asked if we had a curfew because it was so quiet on the streets. ‘No,’ we shouted, ‘it’s Saturday night and everyone’s in Brighton.’ ‘What are they doing down there?’ He asked. ‘Counting pebbles I suppose.’ And he dared to mispronounce Ardingly which became a joke running through the evening punctuated by his final pop ‘You lot not only want to come out of the EU you want to come out of the alphabet too.’
Who Do I Think I Am? concerns Steel’s quest to find the birth parents who gave him up for adoption in 1960 and the impact of resultant revelations on his self-identity.There was a smooth build up to his grand statement ‘When I had a kid of my own suddenly I needed to find out who I was and where I’d come from.’ Before this statement he ranted on about growing up in Swanley, Kent… ‘not a pretty place. Haywards Heath is Las Vegas compared to fucking Swanley.’ ‘People go to Swanley to end their life. It’s like a one way ticket to Switzerland.’
Mark was born in 1959. He’s nostalgia about the era he grew up in. ‘In those days you could go in a cafe and there weren’t 50 types of tea (he describes all the flavours on offer today). Tea was builders’ tea served in a mug with a chip by a fat lady in an apron, sucking a fag. You expected fag ash in your tea.’ As a young lad he went in the bookies with his dad. I smiled when he described plastic streamers hanging from the door as you entered. My grandma had those in the 70s!
‘In my day’ Mark said ‘no one was gay. Nowadays you can be gay if you want to.’ He went on ‘I’ve no interest in the penis whatsoever. It’s purely functional. It’s a fork lift truck.’
Coming from South London he has contempt for North London. That’s to be expected. It’s the oldest rivalry! ‘Thankfully North Londoners are more likely to go to Paris than South London.’
He’s supremely aware that he’s getting older; another prompter to search for his birth parents. ‘Soon it’ll be a care home with our faces in spaghetti just waiting for Panorama to come round.’
Mark’s humour is based upon raw cynicism. That’s why we love him. He reached 50 and thought ‘everything about life is so bloody complicated. Life was better in the 13th century… phone calls should be simple but every call ends in “sorry you’re breaking up I can’t hear you”… “you’ve nudged the mute button.’ Even ordering food has become complicated he says. ‘There’s a whole set of rules for ordering a Subway sandwich and you’re served by people wearing green luminous gloves.’
Mark has calculated that at 50 you only have around 25 holidays left. Adverts are directed at the over fifties. From foam mattresses to holidays for those with decaying bones.
There is a lack of emotional vulnerability to his quest to find his parents. But that’s okay. He’s found humour in the sad circumstances surrounding his early life and we can only smile at his ability to turn things around. He’s half Scottish and half Egyptian Jew. That’s funny in itself, but things get better when we learn that his dad was a backgammon champion and has written a book about backgammon. He flicks through the book looking at scores and says ‘I can’t find this interesting at all even if my dad did write it.’
Mark travels to ‘biscuit tin Scotland’ with its ‘misty hills, poets and burns’ in search of his mum who lives in a small town with a fountain, ‘the only industry there.’ He discovers his aunt still living there. She says ‘ow the wee bern’s come back.’ I loved his Mrs Doubtfire accent, it was brilliant.
I do hope Mark Steel will return to Haywards Heath but in the meantime I look forward to hearing him again on BBC Radio 4.
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