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Let Me Play The Fool

        Shakespeare is like broccoli. You heard me.
The Bay Area Brit has always liked to read, but as a schoolboy in England, I was forced to absorb books that were way over my head. Instead of opening up to the world of Olde England as spake by 14th Century writer Geoffrey Chaucer, I gazed at the text wondering what I could do or say in the melancholic mire to keep my classmates and me entertained.

      l played the fool.

    I felt sorry for my fellow pre-teenage students, some of whom may have genuinely been interested in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. At the age of 12, I couldn’t care less. Even if the stories had been interesting to me, what was with all that lingo? My sphincter puckered at the antiquated verbiage.

        I have recently come to appreciate “The Bard.” To me, Shakespeare is like broccoli. I hated broccoli as a child. It was forced upon me because it was supposed to be “good for me.” Much like Shakespeare was supposed to be “good for me.” In adulthood I have come to appreciate, and dare I say it, love broccoli and Shakespeare. I even like that wretched cauliflower Dickens now. I mean his stories are depressing as hell and I still imagine myself a victim of child labor forced to shimmy up a chimney to clean it every time I read him, but at least I get it now. Chaucer: you’re like Brussels sprouts and are dead to me and can rot. I know you’re “important” but you did nothing but ruin books for me for a very long time.

                  I recently read “Fool” by Christopher Moore. A book that is inspired by Shakespeare and British comedy. Moore is one of my favorite writers because he’s funny. He can tell a mean story, but in a way that keeps you on your toes. His comedic timing is as good (if not better) than any writer I’ve ever read. I was first introduced to Christopher Moore a few years ago after reading a book that he referred to as the biggest challenge of his writing career: “Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.”

If you haven’t read “Lamb,” and were kept prisoner in Sunday School as a child, this might be the perfect antidote to what ailed you all those years ago. It’s a brilliantly executed story that we are all partly familiar with. Moore fills in the missing blanks from The Bible about Jesus’ life, and does it in a way that even the most ardent Christian might concede believable.

I’m just saying that Moore would have made a great apostle were he offered a shot at writing one or more of the gospels. The man can spin a yarn. However, when I finally got around to reading “Fool,” I braced myself (somewhat apprehensively) for some Shakespearean childhood flashbacks.

I am often wary when Americans (Moore is originally from Ohio) try to delve too deeply into not only my country’s history but take a swing at the humo(u)r. British humor has its own unmistakable identity. To scratch the surface, it is borne from the works of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde (although technically Irish), P.G. Wodehouse, Tom Stoppard (who penned “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead,” which is Hamlet written from the perspective of two of the play’s secondary characters), Douglas Adams, and Pythons of the Monty variety. Fortunately, Moore is a fan of the genre and is influenced appropriately by the comedic gods from across the pond.

He researched Lamb by reading The Bible with an archaeologist’s toothcomb and visited Israel and walked in Christ’s footsteps.

         Ensuring Fool’s authenticity wasn’t something he could do by just reading up on Shakespeare (which he did). It wasn’t by visiting Britain (which he did). The heart of Fool comes from understanding the British sense of humor;  the language he uses is spot on. In the hands of a different American writer, the book might have been overly-peppered with jokes and schtick sold to him by a hackneyed Renaissance Faire Punch and Judy gag writer. Not so with Fool.

Fool is Moore’s version of “King Lear” as told from the perspective of Pocket: a black-clothed court jester, who is either fully loved or despised by the other characters living in Lear’s court. Moore acknowledges Shakespeare took liberties with timeframes and geography in his play, as he did. As to what responsibility Moore had to steer things back where they belong–the answer is none. As a consequence, Fool is a hilarious and oft bawdy Medieval romp which begs, borrows, and steals from a handful of Shakespeare’s works. Think of Fool as Shakespeare on Nitrous Oxide. Yes, the writer takes liberties all of which he confesses: there are cameos from Macbeth’s witches and Moore uses British slang and American euphemisms with a joyful abandon. At some point I remember vague mention of “the driving out the Mazdas from Swindon.” It doesn’t make sense, but why should it? It’s laugh out loud funny and satisfying to the end.

       On this April Fools Day, if you have a new-found love of broccoli, this fool urges you to seek out Christopher Moore’s “Fool.”

Saloony Toons

        The Bay Area Brit is not much of a fighter, and I’m okay with that. I have always tried my best to avoid “fisticuffs,” but have occasionally been on the receiving end of a well-aimed boot or punch to my head. Usually after trying to diffuse a volatile situation in the manner that Oscar Wilde might try to stave off an assault by the Marquess of Queensbury–by using wit and reason.
My crime for being targeted on these occasions? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a person of questionable evolutionary achievement decides to indulge in the primitive pleasure he receives when inflicting pain on another person.

        Random acts of violence have always baffled me, yet we see it on telly all the time. We’ve all seen those Westerns where the big, drunk cowboy starts a fight in a saloon; one fellow is then jostled by another guy, spills his beer and then the punches fly left, right, north, and south. Next thing you know the conflict level has gone from “skirmish” to “brouhaha.” bypassing “melee” altogether.

         I know it’s a movie, but let’s say the huge brawl destroys the interior of the only saloon in town: Furniture crashes through mirrors, men are thrown onto tables and chairs, which splinter and break under their weight. Then of course there’s the inevitable destruction of liquor inventory; as the bartender ducks below the bar, a chair is launched at the row of whisky bottles. This is all going on while the biggest, drunkest guy in the room (who started the fight) swings on a chandelier until he and the light fixture crash on top of the piano breaking its legs sending the imitation Steinway to its ignominious demise with a tuneless crunch.

         So how many times do you think the owner of the place is going to put up with these yahoos before closing his doors for good, saying, “Screw you morons. I’m opening up a deli or a piano repair shop.”

          Wouldn’t the drunken townsfolk realize the error of their ways when their only source of libation in town is closed AGAIN for weeks on end while the bar undergoes major structural repair to fix the ceiling, the piano, restock the bar, and clean the bloodstains off of the ceiling.

       Believing what we see in the movies to be true, alcohol assists life in imitating art.

      I was caught in the middle of an epic saloon fight once, but it was back in London and was scary as hell. I was working at a pub one busy night when some seven or eight guys suddenly threw their empty beer glasses to the floor and began swinging wildly at the other bar patrons. They hurled bottles and glasses at the staff, threw tables and chairs through the windows, and smashed up the jukebox. For no reason other than to trash the place.

        For five minutes the place was a riot zone. The cops were called, but by then the varmints had hopped on their horses and were halfway to Dodge (by which I mean, they’d legged it to the Bayswater tube station bound for a train to Acton or Dagenham where they would grab a late-night kebab, make lewd comments at some women, and pat each other on the back and talk about how “well ‘ard” they all were.)

            I have yet to be caught in the middle of a big bar fight in the U.S. However, whenever I enter an establishment I’ve never been in before, and know no one there, I’ve always got one eye on the big, drunk guy poised to start the fight and swing on the chandelier. Consequently, upon entering a saloon that’s a little rough around the edges, I’m usually pleasant and affable to the doorman or bartender, aware that an ally in a bar is a good thing.

           The last time someone wanted to pick a fight with me was last summer at a bar in Bolinas called Smiley’s. I only went to Bolinas because my wife was playing a show there. And from the moment we walked in, the doorman took an instant dislike to me. I couldn’t understand it, but I’ve seen it before: the less intelligent of the male American species seem to be intellectually intimidated or feel insecure upon meeting someone who speaks with an English accent. Maybe this creature was hatched in Bolinas and has never flown outside the bosom of his small town’s borders. Either way, he meant me grievous bodily harm. I worked in bars and clubs for years and the best bouncers in the business can fight, but avoid it at all costs. But not this guy.
So the Smiley’s doorman approached me while I was at the bar getting a drink and tried to provoke me into a fight. He poked at me with a swollen index finger and said: “You think you’re cool, but you’re not. You think you look and dress cool, with your retro bullshit but you don’t.” I shrugged my shoulders thinking, retro? Dude, I’ve dressed like this since forever, what are you talking about?
I looked down at his scabby knuckles and quickly realized that although he obviously enjoyed the fighting part of his job, he probably couldn’t throw the first punch at me in front of the bartender/manager who was only three yards from where I stood, and so although a part of me wanted to ask him what his problem was, I just clinked my glass to his and said, “Well, here’s to one of us not being cool.”

I could feel this moron’s adrenaline rise like raw sewage in a flood.

           Nothing further happened that night, but when the guy disappeared outside as we were packing up the instruments and equipment to leave, I felt sure he was waiting around the corner in the shadows.

          On Sunday night in a bar in Nevada City, I was talking to my friend Sasha about the incident in Bolinas and she told me I should have just put on the “tough, hardened English accent” she’d seen in films.
Oh, I suppose I could fake it for a second or two, but my lack of conviction would be quickly exposed in my eyes. I’m just not scary and intimidating like Ben Kingsley in the movie “Sexy Beast,” or Ian McShane in “Deadwood,” or Vinnie Jones in “Snatch.” I gladly play the fool and make jokes to avoid a trip to the E.R., and have done so since I was a kid in boarding school. I’m just not a fighter, and for the most part, am way better at getting out of a fight than getting into one.
And I’m really okay with that.

© Copyright Matty Stone 2010