It was when the kindly folk at the Theatre Royal Haymarket said ‘You’ll be in Paul Whitehouse’s dressing-room’ that it sunk in: the epic biting off of more than I could chew. But there was no going back. In a couple of hours, I would be on stage — and this time, I’d sing. Exploring Paul’s stuff didn’t do much to keep the stage fright at bay: comedy-friendly hats and break-a-leg cards were in massed array. Kindly messages from my friends featured the words ‘gosh’ and ‘brave’.
A couple of months ago, the stunt had seemed a bright idea. I have a new book to push, Wordy, one of those literary tapas samplers which despite its miscellany (or possibly because of it) readers seem to enjoy. There’s some strenuous stuff on memory and the Holocaust and the inevitable reflections on populism. But by and large the book is offered as entertainment. When it was suggested I do one of those tours where the writer does some light on- stage reading, or has an ‘in conversation with’, I thought: why not go the whole ham? I’d done stand-up Jewish jokes in Chicago and survived. How hard could this be? Let there be more jokes custom-made for our epoch of scoundrels and buffoons! Let there be pictures, let there be music!
The producers went for it. A pianist-singer signed on — Nick Barstow, a West-End arranger; then Jon Culshaw who does a Dead Ringer of both Schama and Donald Trump. ‘Strangely enough, it all turns out well,’ says Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love. ‘It’s a mystery.’ And once on stage, it does. They laugh at the jokes; they’re kind to the singing; they fall quiet when I talk about what it was like to be in New York on 9/11. At the end they clap, rise and cheer. Astonishing. Nick and I take actual bows. Clearly, my life to this point has been a complete waste.
Stage-struck and slightly hungover, I do an altogether different turn in front of Buckingham Palace for Sky News with Adam Boulton. I’m asked about the actual Donald, and get a tad shirty. I’m increasingly surprised by how much slack he gets in the British media compared with their American counterparts, especially fiercely anti-Trump conservatives such as David Frum. But then it’s not British political institutions that are under siege — not directly, anyway — from his executive imperialism and bloated diet of falsehood and delusion. (Later that day Trump would tweet his delight in the non-existent cheering crowds of ‘well-wishers’.) I quote special counsel Robert Mueller’s damning conclusion after his two-year investigation into the 2016 presidential election: ‘If we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.’ So the state guest is not not a criminal. I also point out that any trade deal offered by Trump has to be ratified by both Houses of Congress, which pretty much precludes any un-backstopping. Heavy trolling on Twitter ensues. I am a traitor, a traducer of Potus. Has anyone else noticed that the most manic trollers operate with names borrowed from gothic fantasy or superhero comics — and apparently believe that a powerful argument is best made by multiplying the expletives? Heady stuff.
In County Carlow, on a panel about misinformation with Fintan O’Toole and Misha Glenny, something occurs to me. At every moment of changing technology, the arena of opinion has been contested between learned guardians of truth and graphic demonisers: on the one hand Erasmus; on the other Lutheran satirists who turn the Pope into the Whore of Babylon. Misha is brilliant and terrifying on the damage already done. He has just become an Irish citizen. I start my genealogical search for the O’Schamessys of County Oyveigh.
In Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, during the last performance of my tour, I wonder out loud what Lord Monboddo, the founder of historical linguistics, would have made of Twitter. Would it have thrown his evolutionary assumptions into reverse? At supper after the show, my pal Martin tells me that, as much as he hates all nationalism, Brexit has him thinking again about an independent Scotland. ‘Taking back control’ has a different ring to it now north of the Tweed. As Ford announces the closure of its engine plant in Bridgend, the Welsh government goes Remain. The harder the exit, the more trouble ahead for the not-so-United Kingdom. But we’ll always have knockabout shows. Just preferably not in Downing Street.
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