Friday, 20 July 2012

My evening listening to rape jokes

“Are you married?” yelled an audience member to the cocky comic who’d just spent an hour spewing out rape jokes, an endless stream of misogyny and a smattering of casual racism aimed towards his mostly white audience. “That depends,” replied the comic. “On whether I want something from the kitchen, or whether it’s a hot girl asking.”

Amazingly, Imran Yusuf is married. I say “amazingly”, because it’s a brave woman who commits to a man who includes in his set a ‘gag’ about their recent trip to South Africa (of which Johannesburg is, in Yusuf’s words, “the rape capital of the world”), and how he explored the country’s shanty towns alone… because his wife was too scared to leave the hotel: the implication being that if she left the hotel, she would be raped. Ha ha ha.

Another reason I’m amazed Yusuf is married is that he uses the trick of telling “fuck me jokes”, as dissected by the fabulous comedian Danielle Ward in her Edinburgh preview last week. Danielle talked about the type of male comedian who goes on stage, performs a misogynistic set, and then drops in a few lines designed to make women feel he’s vulnerable – so much so that they’ll go backstage and have sex with him. Yusuf did this several times with no shame. Littered throughout his set were loaded lines about how he didn’t lose his virginity until he was 25, or about how very sensitive he was, and he pointedly addressed these lines to the “ladies”. Classy.

Now, you’d be forgiven for wondering what I was even doing at Yusuf’s gig. Well, I’d gone to a double-bill of Edinburgh previews at the Tobacco Factory because Lucy Porter was on the bill. The other act was someone I’d never previously heard of (Yusuf), but I thought since I was there I’d see what he was like. I wish I hadn’t. Yet I couldn’t get up and walk out because I was hemmed into a corner, and I also suspected Yusuf would pick on me if he saw me leave. So I stayed. And I survived his set by live-tweeting the second half of it.

Initially, I simply tweeted: “At Imran Yusuf ‘comedy’ gig. He thinks rape and misogyny are funny. So does much of his audience. I’m stuck in a corner and can’t leave.” The response was instant and huge – via retweets, supportive @ comments, new followers… So I sent a second tweet: “Such a hostile crowd to be with. What’s worse? The man with the mic telling rape jokes? Or the audience laughing at him. This is shit.” The support from Twitter grew further.

But what was Yusuf saying that was so terrible? Surely it was just a bit of harmless ‘banter’? It’s depressing that so many people (although I didn’t see many women laughing) were bellowing at gags about spiking drinks with Rohypnol, or how men are ruling the world while women read Heat magazine. It was an oppressive and nasty atmosphere to be in. The overweight and sweaty man beside me, for instance, was roaring with laughter the whole time, shaking his plastic beer mug like an over-excited toddler with a rattle, and pressing his huge sweaty frame against me, while snorting with laughter all over my arm that was squashed against him. Yuck. I couldn’t escape (but I did shower when I got home).

Placed in a wider context, Yusuf’s jokes are not imaginative, new or exclusive to him. There are a lot of comedians who think rape is a suitable topic for comedy, and who think nothing of filling their set with casual misogyny (just look at Daniel Tosh for a recent example). They’re often young, male comedians, who play to an audience of young men who, terrifyingly, might look up to the person on the stage with the microphone and think, ‘Well, if he’s saying it, then it must be true’, and the situation worsens.

The argument against rape jokes is not new and I’m not going to patronise you to explain why they’re not funny. But what I wonder is why nothing is done to penalise those comedians who persist in making jokes about (and money from) rape and misogyny? Yusuf, for instance, has been on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, which is broadcast on BBC1, and he now has his own show on BBC3. The BBC penalised Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand for their Andrew Sachs ‘prank’, and Angus Deayton was sacked from the BBC after his cocaine and prostitute scandal. Yet apparently the BBC has no problem giving airtime to a comedian who tells rape jokes (NB: Yusuf may not have made rape jokes on TV, but the fact remains he still makes them in his solo show).

Statistics tell us that one in four women will experience rape. The unpleasant conclusion is there were women in Yusuf’s audience last night who had survived rape. I wonder what they felt about his jokes? I wish the atmosphere had been less aggressive and testosterone fuelled so that we could have challenged him – but of course, you can’t do that to a misogynist with a mic who’s standing in front of a room filled with his hyped-up allies, because you’ll get bullied en masse. Aka: silenced.

To make matters worse, Yusuf rounded up his set (before a quick quip about honour killings – another obvious topic for comedy) saying: “If you were offended by anything I said tonight, don’t be offended. It’s just a joke. We’re all the same underneath.” Woah! Let’s just take a moment to think about that. Saying “we’re all the same underneath” implies that Yusuf only thought people might have been offended by his racist jokes (not covered in this post). And didn’t give any indication that he thought his misogynistic jokes were offensive.

Worse, saying “It’s just a joke” is as much of a cop out as ending a crap story saying “It was just a dream”. And the only response to such a weak and pathetic defence is to direct him to Stewart Lee’s Top Gear sketch: “It’s just a joke, like on Top Gear. So when I said I wished Richard Hammond had been killed and decapitated, like when they do their jokes on Top Gear, it’s just a joke.”

I accept that Yusuf is not the only comedian to think rape and misogyny are hilarious, and the reason I’m using him to illustrate my points is that I had the bad luck of seeing his show. I love live comedy (and I run my own comedy nights), but last night was the fist time I’d had first-hand experience of such a hateful set.

Why is there is no moderation in what comedians are permitted to make jokes about? I support free speech and I’m not advocating censorship, but jokes that rile several hundred people to laugh at a violent and degrading sexual assault are deplorable. Rape is often used as a tool to silence the perpetrator’s victim – and if a comedian makes jokes about rape, they’re further silencing that victim by denying them the respect they deserve for surviving the assault. What’s worse is the underhand way the comedians can do it. Yusuf, for instance, isn’t so crass as to use the word “rape” (except in reference to his wife in South Africa), but his intention is clear on numerous occasions.

It’s time the casual misogynists spewing rape jokes were called to account.

Note: I tweeted Yusuf to tell him I was writing this and asked if he’d like to comment. As yet, I’ve had no reply. I’ve also emailed the Tobacco Factory and promoter, but as yet I’ve also had no reply. Should any of the three answer, I’ll add their comment at the end of this piece.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

A book from beyond the grave

My mother and I are different in many respects. While we’re very close, we agree we have few shared interests. She likes to travel alone to far-flung corners of the globe; I like coupled-up holidays in sunny spots. She has no qualms about building a cupboard from scratch; I think I’ve achieved the same if I assemble a flatpack shelf. But one thing we do share in common is a passion for old-fashioned women’s novels of the type republished by Persephone. What’s extra pleasing is that this is an enthusiasm that was also passed down from her mother, who died in 1978 just before I was born. 

So my mother and I swap and gift Persephones, Bloomsbury Classics, Virago Modern Classics and original Penguin paperbacks (among others). We read and talk about authors like Monica Dickens, Rachel Ferguson, Dorothy Whipple, Noel Streatfeild and more. We think we’re up to date if we’re reading Diana Athill.

When my grandmother died, my mum inherited boxes of her books, most of which fitted the above category. And over the past 34 years, these books have been shuffled around – between bookshelves, bedrooms, homes and sometimes – on an ill thought through whim – to the charity shop, only to be regretted. Some of the books we’ve read and loved, some we’ve thought: ‘What was she thinking?’ But to me, who never knew my grandmother, they offer a glimpse into her interests, and her way of life: most of these books were contemporary novels at the time she bought and read them. As an added bonus, some have handwritten inscriptions in.

And then something happened.

My mum was rearranging the bookshelves last weekend, creating a library of women authors in my old bedroom. And in the process of transferring books from several rooms to one, she leafed through some crumbly Angela Thirkell books (seemingly my grandmother’s favourite author, judging by the quantity of her books that we have) and two very old picture postcards fell out. They were addressed to my grandmother and sent by her next-door neighbour (who was on holiday at the time) in the early 1950s. This being the era when the postcard ruled, they contained mundane messages asking her to leave a particular pot in a safe place, and something to do with the bins. But added in a corner, in pencil, as an afterthought, was a recommendation for a book: A Picnic In The Shade by Rosemary Edisford. There was no comment about it, just the title and author.

Taking this as a sign, my mum went to Amazon and tracked down a second-hand copy (the book is long out of print), and is now eagerly awaiting its arrival. We’re both very excited, and my mum is firmly convinced that it will be a most enjoyable book – one that we will later deliver to Persephone for them to reprint, along the lines of the Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day story

I can find little information about Rosemary Edisford online. A Picnic In The Shade is listed on Amazon as her only book, however Google tells me she wrote a short story for the New Yorker in 1961 and possibly a guide to the saints. I’d love to know more about her. I’m intrigued and keen to romanticise this note from 60 years ago…

Once the book arrives and we’ve read it, I’ll report back. In the meantime, if you happen to know anything about Rosemary Edisford, please let me know.