by Frankie Boyle
304 pages, Harper Collins
Review by Pat Black
“I’m so old, my p*ssy is haunted” – Frankie Boyle, in a section entitled “Things you’d never hear the Queen say”, Mock The Week.
There are all kinds of comics, and all kinds of jokes. Some of them cause a bit of a stir, some outright anger. If we imagine public acceptability of gags as a diagram of a penis, comedian Frankie Boyle isn’t located on it anywhere – not even under the helmet. He’s a pungent stain on the edge of the sheet. You think it’s tea, but it’s not. Then you drop the sheet and back away, aghast.
Frankie prefaces My Shit Life So Far, his autobiography, by explaining how much he hates celebrity autobiography culture. He went even further in an article in the Guardian in which he said, “There aren’t any publishers I think you’d confuse with leading philosophical thinkers of the day.” This was uttered during an interview ahead of the publication of this book, in late 2009.
I can’t imagine doing the same if I was to release my first book, even if I really, really thought so. More c*nt me; but that’s the sort of power being a well-kent face grants you. But perhaps, not for long.
Frankie is always in trouble. A stand-up comedian, this helps keep him in the headlines. The trouble is, well, that he’s in a little bit too much trouble now. He made a few jokes about the Paralympics opening ceremony the other night, and these seem to have triggered a massive backlash that had him, uncharacteristically, going on the defensive on Twitter.
These gags included: “The Saudi team must all be thieves,” and: “That athlete’s personal best was al-Qaeda assisted,” and: “So. F*cking. Horny”.
It seems that even Channel 4, his spiritual home since he parted company with the BBC's current affairs panel show Mock The Week, where he became a household name, might be about to pull the chain on dear Frankie.
Boyle was born in Glasgow in 1972. A south sider, he was brought up in Pollokshields and attended Holyrood Secondary School – a state school, but far from the worst in the city, as he admits. This book traces his journey from a working class catholic upbringing in Scotland’s biggest, dirtiest city to stand-up comedy, TV work and national fame/notoriety. His years as a sex criminal and terrorist are glossed over, but you can’t expect born c*nts to be totally honest about everything.
Just kiddin’ Frankie. You were never born; you were grown in a tank, a sentient pair of spleebs and ginger fuzz with a protein coating. A bit like the pink stuff you find at the bottom of the bin. Imagine it twitching, just as you apply the bleach. That’s you.
To get the embarrassing stuff out of the way early doors: I’m a big fan. The book provides ample evidence of Frankie’s talents. If you have a robust sense of humour – and by that I mean, if you’re a bit of a sick bastard - he is very witty, and very funny. I have one of those ball-aching “I saw Frankie Boyle before he was famous” stories, too, being a fellow product of his home city, like bicycles, tarmacadam, alcoholism as a vocational career, football-related sectarianism and domestic violence.
Eh, I saw Frankie Boyle before he was famous. He was compering a Saturday night stint before a packed crowd at Jongleurs comedy club in Glasgow city centre. Even then, he was an edgy presence. A giggling specky imp sucking from a can of Diet Coke, his act as a link man mainly consisted of singling out the luckless people who sat at the front rows or got up to go to the toilet, and slaughtering them. One man who was on a work’s night out with six different women is probably still cringing from the slagging he got that night. Boyle was very, very funny, and dealt with hecklers with a style and ease I’ve never seen since. Everyone was terrified of getting out of their seats when he came on; there was a near-tsunami of people charging for the loos whenever he turned away from the mic. That’s a rare power to have over people.
The line of humour and sociopathy in his material was not so much blurred as smudged into one pulpy mass, as if by grubby fingers on a third-hand scuddie magazine. This event would have been in early 2003; the reason I remember this, apart from the spectacularly debauched night out that followed the gig, is because it was the night of the second Space Shuttle disaster.
Frankie Boyle makes a joke about Space Shuttle disasters in this book.
The shock factor of his style of comedy and the fact he does not appear to give a f*ck are borne out from the very first page. Frankie’s greatest hits include comparing the Olympic swimming champion Rebecca Adlington – a lovely young woman who has never done anyone any harm at all, and is very pretty – to someone looking at themselves in the back of a spoon.
Most famously, he had a go at Katie Price, the former glamour model turned… whatever she is. On Tramadol Nights, Boyle’s 50% shite sketch show, he wondered if Ms Price had taken in with a mixed martial arts fighter in order to have someone on hand and able to fight off her blind, disabled son when he grows big enough to try to rape her.
Now bear in mind that Katie Price, while being inexplicably popular among people whom society would not miss if they were quickly and cleanly executed, is hardly among Britain’s most beloved women. But the outrage that joke created still continues to reverberate whenever Boyle’s name is mentioned, like a fart in a crematorium. Someone who could be described as one of Britain’s most beloved women is her majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and that takes us back to the joke at the top.
Frankie gallops through his early life, sparing few details… well, he does spare a lot of details about his family life, in fact, other than that his brother was quite anxious as child. Curious.
His secondary school days are well-covered, and they remind me of my own, spent in a place I loved but which was not topping any European affluence leagues at the time, or since. Frankie describes teachers walking out of the school gates to head-butt teenage gang leaders, “like Dirty Harry”, and one boy being taken out of school after having had his head put through a wall by a gang for having “looked the wrong way” at someone. Chillingly, Frankie recounts one teacher’s reaction to the decision taken by the poor lad’s mother – incredulity that a parent would do this in response to extreme violence, as if there’s something shameful in it. As if the fault lay with the victim.
This chimed with me. How many similar experiences could I recount? There’s one lad’s terrifying ordeal, hanging by his fingertips from a wall above a 30ft drop onto unfinished tarmac and broken glass, while some older kids attempted to stamp on him; there’s the “Crocodile Dundee” knife fight in the yard where one lad pulled out a bread knife, only for the other to pull out what may have been a Gurkha kukri… something impressively big and shiny, anyway. There are times that I think to myself, “everyone thinks they went to a mental school – everyone talks up their crazy school antics”. Perhaps. But perhaps someone actually did go to the most mental school. Mine wasn’t the worst in the scheme, I can tell you; the protestant schools were far worse, obviously. That was if their pupils could get through the gates, when we weren’t knocking f*ck right out of them.
Frankie Boyle at least still lives in Glasgow, so he must love it – whereas I f*cked off about a year ago. So Frankie Boyle wins. Glasgow runs through Frankie’s comedy DNA the way syphilis rampages through his f*cked synapses. There’s a raw psychopathy to a lot of the humour in that city. In some ways it’s a reaction against grim life, a generation or two on from the time when there was a genuine working class at the shipyards and foundries, which in itself was one of the first generations of that place to enjoy running water. If life is hard, you have to either learn to laugh at it, or let it consume you. Put it this way, if your father is attempting to drown you in dirty dishwater, you need to think on your feet to try and get him to laugh, and let you breathe again.
This type of male humour, endemic in the shipyards, factories, foundries and industrial units, amounted to bullying, with every weakness torn to pieces. Billy Connolly’s work was part homage, part reaction to the humour of such workplaces, massive yards where the men poured in early in the morning and poured out into the pubs at night – although I’d argue that Billy Connolly’s early stuff was an affectionate, and even psychedelic, look at working class life even while he strove to break the bonds of society and convention.
Connolly’s a lot nastier in his golden years, but it’s the meanness of a crumbly grandfather, sitting in a soiled old floral print armchair with his wallies in a glass and a face like a slapped herring. Someone we laugh at, as much as laugh with (though I will cheerily tell anyone who will listen that Billy Connolly is the greatest comedian of all time).
In contrast, fellow Glaswegian Boyle’s nastiness is a straight-faced, ingrained reaction to grim life. Boyle won’t sing any funny wee songs about wellies and night buses any time soon, though I would like to hear any poetry he feels compelled to compose on the subject of divorce.
Basically, you have to learn to laugh at some life conditions, especially if you come from a poor background, with drink, sectarianism, violence - and their big brother, drunken sectarian violence - surrounding you.
In fact, Boyle’s Glasgow reminiscences remind me of the death of my father. I was lucky enough to hear his last words: “I pulled every one of those punches ya POOF.”
But there’s a hidden side to Frankie, one that he’s shy of showing us. He mentions having a debating society at his school, and that it did well in national competitions. He also took part in the drama club, being talented enough to appear in TV productions as a young teenager. He uses the time-worn excuse of “it’s because I wanted to get off with girls there,” but possibly glosses over the fact that he got involved with these things because he liked drama, performance and debate.
Not being a massive homosexual, I didn’t go to any drama clubs or debating societies (I’m about five years younger than Frankie – which is crucial, because when I was a lad the EIS teachers’ strikes beefed a lot of my prospects hard and fast, and for good). But then of course, that’s because I went to a much harder, more hetereosexual school than Holyrood alumni Frankie Boyle, and no such things existed there. There was a guitar class held at lunchtimes by the school chaplain and a nun, in a sexually charged atmosphere so dense that even haggard 14-year-old onanists fled in tears. It was beyond humour, like something out of the f*cking Thorn Birds. The Sacred Heart statue actually took his finger away from his bleeding heart and stuck it up his arse at one point. But that was it.
Anyway, you get a feel for the bookish, geeky guy Boyle undoubtedly was. His more fantastical comedy sketches (some of the best – and most shit – of which are reprinted in the book; nice padding) are full of references to aliens, mad professors, giant crabs and other pulp sci-fi tropes. He lists Gene Wolfe as his favourite writer, is effusive about his love for comic books, and drops many references to Michael Moorcock. I can imagine Frankie getting these books out of the library and adoring them, having his mind opened by them, as much as the political books he also favoured. Somewhere, in the city’s budget-squeezed shibboleths of literature, Frankie’s finger-prints and perhaps a flake or two of his old spunk can still be found on some PVC book jackets.
I wanted to know more about Frankie’s means of escape; because if you live in a grim eight-in-a-block, with your chief source of nutrition being fungal spores inhaled directly from the cracked lintel, then you can bet you need to escape every now and again. To take an internal journey. It can come as no surprise to anyone that a lot of Glaswegians turn to drink and drugs, frankly.
I can well remember staring into the spaces between the woodchip wallpaper in my room when I was a child, and allowing my mind to drift, to far-off places, stories and fantastical adventures. Well, you’ve got to cope with Father O’Raggem coming round to bum you for your penance somehow.
What also tickled me – neat link – is the fact that Boyle counts himself lucky because he didn’t experience the real, deep, near third-world poverty which his parents’ and grandparents’ generation would have encountered in Glasgow. That’s true, and I feel some of that shame myself. If I got new clothes or toys at Christmas, or when I got a tape-loading home computer one year (as Frankie and his brother did), then by Christ I was made to feel bad about it. An Amstrad CPC 464 does make a formidable weapon if your older brother should so desire to utilise its 8k ram capacity in such a way. They didn’t half make computers chunky in those days, eh?
But the thing is, Frankie’s comparatively comfortable upbringing, although he’s grateful for it (and please, readers, understand that I’m joking about the bad stuff... mostly), is still a million miles away from other kids’ lives in the same era, in more affluent areas. As he says about seeing poor kids when he was a teacher in Edinburgh, some people have no chance – they’re not in the reckoning when it comes to life. “They were never even invited to the party.”
University life for him in Birmingham and Sussex was a blur of alcoholism, drug experimentation and not having much sex, so that’s another area where Frankie’s history and mine intertwine uncomfortably, like two scouts in the same sleeping bag. At least Frankie got to see places as exotic as Aston in his student days; I stayed in Glasgow, attending one of the universities which is not Glasgow University. What the f*ck was I thinking?
That’s not a rhetorical question – I genuinely want to know. What the f*ck was I thinking?
Anyway, Boyle also had stints of working for the civil service, then working at a psychiatric hospital, and then a short-lived gig as a teacher at a tough school, all of which helped his evolution from a person of use to society to a blabbermouth comedy c*nt. Boyle is loyal to the friends he’s made on the circuit – indeed, I recognised the laconic North American guy who guested on his Boyle Variety Performance Show less than two weeks ago as one of the men who appeared on that Jongleurs gig all those years ago… perhaps that was the night they first kissed?
And, the greatest compliment I can probably pay Boyle, I don’t think his success has changed him all that much, except that it’s now much more difficult for him to get away with rape.
He’s done alright for himself; according to the storm-in-a-teacup tax stramash earlier this year, having earned millions off DVDs, tours, TV shows, appearances and writing. Comedy worked out for him, although it seems the drinking and drug-taking nearly killed him in the process. His former appetite for excess is one of the main areas Frankie is totally up-front about his difficulties in life.
The book can either be viewed as a collection of jokes with a life story threaded through it, or vice versa. Both are equally compelling and, bullshit aside, there is a belly laugh to be had on every page, and sometimes every sentence. The belly could be that of a chest-barging gang rapist biker from Missouri called Bubba; it depends how fat you are, I suppose. But anyway, it’s very funny. If Frankie never reappears on television then I’d be quite happy to buy more of his books. God knows, we all need a laugh.
But there’s also a philosophical bent to a lot of his writing, and some deep political convictions which he can’t altogether disguise. One tract on how we worship money and will go to any lengths to monetise every experience in order to give it legitimacy seriously disturbed me, long after the laughter had subsided.
And Frankie’s not all cynicism; he talks about how the sectarianism associated with Celtic and Rangers has poisoned Scottish society, but at the same time he attended Timstock in Seville, when Celtic reached the Uefa Cup final, along with me and just about every other Celtic fan in the world. Now you can’t have been too cynical about that, Frankie, can you?
Latterly, he’s also talked about how having children has led to true love for the first time in his life – no sniggering, please! – with children providing the feelings which you were always told love with a partner were meant to engender. These sentiments are lovely, but they probably aren’t why you’ll watch a Frankie Boyle show.
If swearing and near-the-bumknuckle humour offends you then… Why are you still here? F*ck off.
What I will say about Frankie’s controversial jokes is that we all have a threshold. I didn’t like his material about Rebecca Adlington, mainly because I think she is a decent role model for women. I could probably give you about five more swimmers who deserve abuse before she does, never mind sportspeople or famous women.
When it comes to unwarranted trolling, I take a very dim view – it’s just bullying, nastiness, people with big, big issues looking to feel better about themselves by mocking the innocent. When people defend internet trolls, I find it bizarre that nasty wee c*nts are somehow held up as being guardians of the freedom of speech. There’s a moral component being missed out there. It’s a bit like halfwits from the United States who say that every gun massacre is a necessary sacrifice for Americans’ freedom to bear arms. Which I am sure would be precisely what goes through your mind if some lunatic points a high-calibre pistol at your head in a shopping mall.
But when it comes to what is obviously a joke, well… censuring it is a very slippery slope to take indeed. It’s a tricky one.
Frankie’s in trouble over some Twitter gags about the Paralympics, which I repeated above – and I did laugh at them. To me, they weren’t as potentially offensive as his comment about the late film director Tony Scott: “Credit to him for doing his own stunts.” But that seems to have passed notice. And I laughed at that, too.
I can’t be a hypocrite, here. I’ll let you in on some gags I’ve made to my friends on email since the Paralympics started. One on Stephen Hawking: “He urged us to look to the stars, not at our feet. Understandable, because Hawking’s feet must look like someone mashed two jobbies together.”
And one on some attractive Paralympic runners: “You wouldn’t fish slice her out of bed.”
I wouldn’t dare vocalise these jokes at work, and it’s probably a slow-burning form of suicide to put them in any public forum. But I did make them. No matter that it was to friends in a closed environment; they came from my mind.
Granted, you may not be as warped as me. But to criticise Frankie Boyle for humour that you use yourself is rank hypocrisy. And to put things in context; being outraged over a comedian making a quick gag, when we tolerate things like benefit cuts for disabled people during the Paralympic Games – an inspiring and beautiful thing – well, that really is a joke.
But I should stop here. This has gone on long enough. In the course of his book Frankie Boyle has a description for all critics of comedy. As this description must include me, then I’ll leave it with you and take a bow.