UK on a G-String — chapter one

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THE BET

door-to-door busker n. one who goes door to door, singing, hoping not to be told to bugger off.
See: beggar, bum, hobo, pedlar, homeless idiot.

Three hard things:
Three of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do:
1. Do the opening act for Engelbert Humperdinck.
2. Sell my Mini even though I knew the lights weren’t working.
3. Door-to-door busk my way around the UK in the middle of winter.

THE FIRST HAPPENED on a cold night in Wellington, New Zealand. I had been asked to do 15 minutes of stand-up comedy before the great Engelbert came out on stage. This is my break, I thought. This is the big time. Just me and Engelbert. I’m even staying in the same hotel; only he’s on the eleventh floor and I’m on the first, looking at the back of a butcher’s shop.
But that doesn’t matter. I’ve got a mini bar and nice little chocolates on the bed, just like Engelbert. And I’ve got a room-service menu and Sky TV in my room, just like Engelbert.
And I’ve got hair, unlike Engelbert.

Then the panic set in. All the material I normally use on stage is targeted at young, drunk people on a Thursday night. As I looked around the Michael Fowler Centre there wouldn’t have been a human under the age of 86; this was to be my downfall. I was devastated when I found out they were sober. Most were ladies with purple hair, their sons by their sides looking at me as if to say, ‘You’d better be funny and you better not offend my mum. I paid $80 for this ticket.’ After singing my first song, entitled ‘Kentucky Fried Kitten’, I could see that I had indeed offended his mum and most of the audience. I’m sure if they weren’t asleep the complaints desk would have been inundated.

Before the gig started I had great visions of Engelbert and me touring the country together, playing golf, drinking, and singing songs other than ‘Please Release Me’. Instead, I never met him. The next morning I was just glad to be alive. It was as if I had been thrown into the comedy equivalent of going over the top of the trenches. I lay in the bath, eating chocolates and watching ‘The Karate Kid’.

Of course, selling the Mini was not as exhausting but was still mentally tough. I hate cars and the problem with selling one is that only the owner knows exactly what is wrong with it. Windscreen wipers scrape the glass, brakes don’t work in the wet, clutch only works on Tuesdays. The problem with mine was a small one regarding the lights – they didn’t work. At all. I always drove in the daytime. The only solution was to sell the car during the day.
‘I’m calling about the Mini. Can I have a look at it tonight?’
This was to be the only call I received all week. What’s a man to do?
‘Um, tonight?’ I asked. ‘When you say tonight, do you mean, when it’s dark?’
‘It’s generally dark at night, yeah.’
I didn’t like his attitude. It was a fair enough question. Night can mean a lot of things. It’s dark 24 hours a day in Finland. Maybe I should sell my Mini up there.
‘I only say tonight because I’ve got a lot of work to do when it gets dark. [Couldn’t you be any more obvious? Why don’t you just tell him about the lights?] Can you drop by this afternoon?’
‘I’ll try,’ he said.
‘Great. Bring a torch.’

I sold him the car and walked home in the dark. The deal was made just as the sun went down. It didn’t feel good but I comforted myself by thinking that he looked like the kind of guy who could fix lights on a Mini. I don’t know what that look is, but I definitely don’t have it.

Door-to-door busking is something I tried in New Zealand when I was saving for an overseas trip. It is officially the hardest, most humiliating, most degrading thing I’ve ever had to do to make a buck. Instead of busking on the street and hoping people throw money, I decided a more personal way would be to corner them on their doorstep. This was five years earlier and, to be honest, I hadn’t thought about it since. That was until a couple of months ago when a ludicrous, yet somehow alluring, bet with an Aussie mate grabbed my attention.

The bet is made
Auckland, Saturday, 11 August 2001
The game: All Blacks v Australia, Carisbrook, Dunedin

AS USUAL, ON the day of an All Blacks rugby test, the nation of New Zealand stops. Car salesmen lock their doors, real estate agents pack up their gear and supermarkets let their staff go home. The rest of the nation stocks the fridge with recently acquired additives.

Mates call each other to say, ‘Have a good game’, even though none of us are really playing. It just helps. It unites us. Makes us feel like we’re in the dressing room and doing our bit to help the guys. Chances are we’re as nervous as them anyway. Of course, the old rule applies: if the All Blacks win, we say we won. If the All Blacks lose, we say they lost. That’s the luxury of being a fan and an armchair critic: you get the best of both worlds.

As I look outside I realise it’s perfect rugby weather: cold, raining and miserable. The Australian team, hoping for blue skies and warm temperatures, will be in for a hell of a shock. Hopefully, the first of many today. To add insult to injury, they have to play in Dunedin, easily the coldest place in the country.

Unfortunately, or fortunately if we win, we have an Aussie who’ll be sitting with us in the lounge. Mark’s been a mate of mine for years, even if he does come from Melbourne. We met in a dodgy flat in Clapham, moved to a dodgy flat in Brixton and have kept in touch via dodgy emails. Mark’s an actor and a very funny guy, but he can be extremely annoying, especially if Australia is winning. I don’t mean ha-ha annoying, come-on-have-a-laugh-it’s-only-a-game annoying. I mean it-normally-ends-in-tears-someone-will-have-an-eye-out annoying.

Things are going well. Everyone’s getting along as I introduce Mark to my other mates. Once the sheep-shagging and rugby jokes are over the beer goes down well.

‘So, Brownie, we gonna have a little wager on the game?’ he asks me.
‘Oh, yeah, suppose we could get a little sweepstake going. What do you reckon, guys?’

Nods of approval. Most are transfixed by re-runs of what the All Blacks did wrong last year. Why they show these before the real game I’ll never know. Great for the confidence to see the Aussies win in the final minute, again. I just hope the All Blacks aren’t watching it in their dressing room.

‘Oh, remember that, guys, John Eales’ penalty in the last minute? That must have ripped your nightie,’ Mark says, opening another Fosters.
‘Sheep-shagger.’
‘So, come on, are we gonna get a wager going or not?’
‘All right, all right, keep your hair on,’ I say. ‘Tenner each, closest to the final score?’
‘Na, bugger that,’ Mark says. ‘That’s chicken feed. Listen, let’s get a real bet going here. Put your balls on the line, ya buncha Kiwi slackers.’
‘Twenty?’
‘Na,’ Mark slurps.
‘More than thirty? Mark, I don’t want to take your money off you, mate. I know you’re a struggling actor.’

That much was true. He had the great ambition of being the next Hugh Jackman, but in the last two years had only scored one acting role: a priest in a Xerox ad.

‘OK, what do you want to bet?’ I ask.
‘I was thinking about it on the plane yesterday. How we should have a bet that means more than just a free round.’
‘Yeah … for example?’
‘For example, what’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?’
‘Why?’
‘Just tell me.’
‘How do you define embarrassing?’
‘You made a fool of yourself, something you’d never do again even if you were paid.’
‘Why?’
‘Well, instead of betting for money we should bet that, should the All Blacks lose, you have to re-enact the most embarrassing thing and vice versa. We’ll have proper rules and everything. We’ve got witnesses. So, what’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?’
‘Door-to-door busking. What about you?’
‘That’s easy. I was with my mates at a rugby match in Oz last year. We were on the piss big time and someone dared me to streak across the field.’
‘Did you?’
‘Bloody oath I did. I was smashed.’
‘You never told me that. You had no problem taking your clothes off?’
‘Mate, I’m an actor. I probably take my clothes off once a week for ad auditions. I was out there before he’d finished the dare.’
‘And what happened?’

The boys had become bored watching re-runs and were now listening to Mark’s fable.

‘The crowd went nuts, mate. I ran out to the middle, completely starkers, flashing it about and was taken out by a security guard just before I got to the players. Only problem was it was freezing and –’
‘Don’t tell me.’
‘Yep …’
‘You idiot, don’t say what I think you’re going to say. You’ll let us down as a species.’
‘You better believe it. I had major shrinkage going on downstairs. In front of twenty thousand punters.’
‘You streaked in the middle of winter, of course you’re gonna get shrinkage.’

The telly was now muted. Everyone was hoping for a disastrous ending.

‘By this time I had a sweatshirt draped across my face. Thank God, I thought, no one can recognise me. I was dragged off the field and the crowd got louder and louder as I got nearer to the stands. I was paranoid by this stage. I wanted to cover myself, started feeling like a right idiot.’
‘Bit late for that.’
‘It got worse,’ he continued. ‘Just as I was thinking how lucky I was that no one but my mates were in the audience, I heard a cackly voice and a bunch of chicks laughing –’
‘No! Get outta town. This is brilliant. Who was it?’
‘Tanya, my ex, and her friends.’
‘Brilliant. Oh, you’ve made my day!’ I refilled my glass.
‘All I heard was, “Hi, Mark. You a bit cold there, darling?” Then the smart arse security guard says, “Know those ladies, do you, mate? Bit of a shame she has to see you like this, or not like this as the case may be.”‘
‘Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.’

I sensed from the laughter in the room that everyone agreed.

Mark opened his sixth Fosters. ‘So, you reckon door-to-door busking is the most embarrassing thing you’ve done?’
‘Definitely,’ I said.
‘But that was in New Zealand, right?’

I nodded. The look on Mark’s face made me shiver.

‘OK, here’s the go,’ he continued to an attentive audience. ‘If the All Blacks lose, you have to go to England in the middle of winter and door-to-door busk and make enough money for a flight home.’
‘You’re joking. How much would that be?’
‘I dunno. Bout five hundred quid, I suppose.’
‘That’s impossible,’ I said. ‘That’ll take me months. And what do you have to do?’
‘You name it, mate, I’ll do it. I just know the Aussies are gonna thrash the All Blacks.’

Thinking of a similar punishment wasn’t difficult. All the pain and embarrassment of door-to-door busking came flooding back to me.

‘OK, if the Aussies lose, which they will, you have to go to Wimbledon and streak in the men’s semi-final.’
‘Get a life, Brown. You can’t even get tickets to Wimbledon.’
‘Not my problem, mate.’
‘In front of millions? Yours is so much easier. At least you’ve done it before.’
‘So have you. Look, for sheer endurance mine is harder. Five hundred pounds, Mark! Walking round in the cold for two months getting doors slammed in my face. You take your clothes off for ten seconds in the middle of summer. As you say, you do it every day anyway. Why not do it in front of ten thousand Poms?’

This is crazy, I thought. I can’t go to the UK in the middle of winter and knock on people’s doors. I’ve been to the UK, but that was summer, we were sitting outside a beautiful pub in the Cotswolds. We were drinking and laughing and socialising, not terrorising someone on their doorstep. Then again, I do have confidence in the All Blacks and we do have witnesses.

Mark was thinking; for the first time today he was pensive. A ray of light shone from the bottom of my beer glass – imagine if the All Blacks won and he did have to streak at Wimbledon. It would be fantastic.

‘At least it’d be summer, mate,’ I said. ‘No shrinkage.’
‘You’re on. Hope you lose.’
‘Likewise.’

As we opened a new tray of beer I decided this was ridiculous. Right up there with the most stupid thing I’ve ever done. I’m not a betting man, yet, now, everything was riding on 80 minutes of rugby.

Everyone was watching for a reason.

The whistle went.

The bet was on.