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The Once And Future Him

April 8, 2015

Jones

I saw Terry Jones at the weekend. He was giving an hour-long Q&A before a screening of Monty Python And The Holy Grail at my local cinema, the Little Theatre, as part of the Bath Comedy Festival. The Q&A did not go as I’d expected, and, as a result the whole evening turned into an odd, sad stretch of realisation and reflection.

I’ve given lots of thought to if and how I should write this, but the core of the issue is that Jones was not his right self on Sunday evening.

Watching a bad interview is always a squirming, uncomfortable experience – watching an interview during which it slowly, dreadfully becomes clear that the interviewee is incapable of answering meaningfully is a hollowing and mortifying one. Initial hesitations and quiet pauses seemed like warming up, but soon became the established pattern of every response. Jones grasped agitatedly for names, never offered an answer containing anything more than a single strand of meaning and, very often, simply parroted a confirmation of the question using the same words. When he tried to mount more intricate responses he occasionally seemed to see connections of thought and memory which he couldn’t convert into language, and which he’d eventually have to let go with a shrug and an apologetic “I can’t remember.”

I need to say two things. Firstly, that I don’t know anything of Jones’ situation, bearing or behaviour outside of the hour I saw him on stage. And secondly that although I was by turns bewildered, galled and furious during that hour – furious at anyone and everyone who had cleared a path to this stage and enabled this to happen – if anything serious is going on then the discomfort of a fan doesn’t register on the scale needed to record the distress of those directly affected.

The overriding sense was that we were seeing something private, and that something, it seemed to me at that moment, was about an unravelling of self. A sad and fascinating thing happened towards the end of the hour, when Jones apparently called time on the interview and asked for questions from the audience. The same people who always pop up at this point then popped up, men in their 30s, 40s and 50s asking the same questions-that-are-really-statements-about-themselves-with-a-question-mark-at-the-end, all apparently oblivious to the evening so far.

It says something about what we seek from a connection with fame, or heroes – not necessarily contact with the person themselves, but a rush towards the image and idea we have of them (which, as it happened, was all of Jones I could see on stage) and to grab at it, see ourselves reflected in it. One man asked how Jones writes such inventive stories, because he’s been trying to write and can’t get anywhere. “I just make them up.” Another spoke of an Anglican upbringing during which he didn’t understand the Pythons’ humour, which prompted a confused cul-de-sac from Jones about his mother dying of a heart attack while he was in Paris (“…she always had a heart attack when I was in Paris”). The questions still came – the audience was so concerned with presenting a piece of themselves to the person they’d come to see that they were somehow incapable of seeing that he wasn’t there. “I’ve forgotten my memory” Jones said at one point.

And then the film started, and to a certain extent everything was washed away. This, despite the fact that the pain of the evening was quite specifically seeing the terrifically sharp and talented person in that film now on-stage and diminished. Part of the reason I wanted to write this piece is because last summer I went to see the Monty Python reunion show at the O2, which turned from something I was skeptical about revisiting to an emotional reminder about the joys of enjoying  things.

I wrote this at the time, trying to explain why the show made me cry and not stop until I was halfway home.

What played a part was certainly that vertiginous rush of remembering how integral these people were to my earliest conceptions of myself, to the humour and skepticism that still lights my way dimly through the world. And there is an incoherent swirl of sensitive things best marked simply as “the past” which were also involved, along with that occasional, cascading sense of how completely in our possession and also completely lost to us the past is.

And so Sunday was the cold correlative of last year’s unexpected joy – surrounded by people for whom Terry Jones was clearly also integral to their conceptions of self, and overwhelmed in a  more sobering way by that sense of holding tightly and having already lost the past. Terry Jones, he’s right there in the film. Terry Jones, he’s onstage and slipping away. And if there is a consolation – and there should be, because we all slip away – it’s that the joy and life of the work, silly and funny and dazzling, stands apart from the people who created it when they can’t be these things any more, and gives us something of them that we can hold on to.

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