‘Some raise middle fingers when I raise millions!’
THE IRC’S JONNY GOULD COLUMN
“You’re the rudest man I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet!” So said the drunk lady at the end of the Emerging Markets Ball, whilst poking me in the chest with her outstretched index finger. “Do you not realise that if you were just a little bit nicer, you might raise a lot more money?” It wasn’t the first time – and it wouldn’t be the last – that I’ve been addressed in such a manner.
But let me rewind to the beginning of this story. I first worked the Emerging Markets Ball at the beginning of the 2000’s. I’ll be honest, I hated every minute of it. This despite the fact that the man who ran the event – Jonathan Murno – was one of the kindest, sweetest men it has ever been my pleasure to meet. The problem was the attendees. I’m not sure why the Emerging Markets Ball seemed to attract such a host of obnoxious people, but a significant majority had few manners and even less humility. I was both Host and Auctioneer, and it was only the second event in a 25 year career where I failed to get a room focused or at least quiet.
Despite my best efforts – normally more than enough to get people seated and attentive – a large number of the EMB Ball just didn’t give a flying f*** that someone was on the stage addressing them. And it wasn’t just me – this total lack of basic manners was even worse when their own people – the Ball Committee – were addressing them. My problem was that I was a victim of my own success. The Auction I had hosted at my first ever EMB Ball had been a roaring success, and massively raised the bar on their future fundraising targets – and Jonathan – being the sweet, loyal, appreciative man that he was – would insist year after year that I return.
So let me tell you just how much I hated this job. Determined NOT to return ever again I added a four-figure sum to my future fee demands, something I did every year. I was sure this would eventually prove too much of an expense for the Committee, and Jonathan would be left with no alternative but to kindly cancel my obligation. Only he didn’t. Every year he paid my ever-increasing extortionate demands, which of course just made things worse – because now I really did have to deliver.
So back to my drunk lady – I had just departed the stage to a standing ovation. On this occasion at least I had for the most part controlled the EMB Ball crowd, and in the process raised a record sum in the Auction. In fact, I’d smashed all previous records and Jonathan was beside himself with excitement. He went on stage and very kindly directed all the applause my way. As I left the stage to a host of congratulatory pats and nods, it was then I noticed the collecting crowd parting like the Red Sea. Coming towards me was my drunken friend, hell-bent on delivering her withering critique of my performance.
I could only laugh at her suggestion that had I just been a bit nicer I would have raised so much more money – had she not heard Jonathan eulogising the fact that we had smashed all previous records? Once she stopped poking me, I feebly responded: “It’s interesting. You’re the 5th person to criticise me in this way in a 15-year career. And the other four were all drunk as well!” “Exactly!” she triumphantly responded. “So take note!” and for good measure, poked me in the chest one last time before wobbling back to her table.
In fairness I’d seen that look many times before, as the world lurched towards a space where almost all forms of humour are considered unacceptable – particularly if directed at the fairer sex. If I’m honest, in the early days of my Auctioneering career, such criticism did upset me, but now it just filled my heart with a resigned sadness. The Me-Too movement it seemed for some had justified a verbal aggression only previously associated with toxic masculinity. I once had a host of great female bidder gags that now lie hidden deep in my memory. “I understand they call her “Appendix” – because you only have to take her out once!”
Ok I know it’s not that funny – but it always made me chuckle. Bizarrely I was once even accused of being sexist for referring to the toilets as the little men’s room, and pitting two male bidders off against each other with the bidding titles – Billy Big Bollocks & Gordon Gargantuan Gonads. According to the middle-aged Aussie woman in question: “Aren’t we past all this men with big bollocks nonsense?”
The most enlightening comment on all this came from my oldest and best mate Jonathan Maitland. Jonny has had a stunning career. Firstly as a Radio Journalist on Radio 4’s Today Programme, then as a TV Presenter as Anne Robinson’s cheeky side-kick on the BBC’s Award winning show Watchdog. More recently he has gained fame as the writer of five books and to date four plays – oh and he’s also a Top 100 ranked UK Scrabble player, and a man of great wit and charm.
So as my oldest mate and go-to for advice and guidance on all things “Career”, I once called him after the Head of the Hounslow Council wrote me a letter to complain about something I’d said at the 10 year Anniversary dinner of the 2003 Rugby World Cup. She had taken umbrage with my opening line to the Charity Auction when I implored all those in attendance to “dig deeper than a Chilean Miner!” It was one of those lines I’d used often and always got that classic mixture of laughter and horror.
I’d used the line regularly prior to this without any significant objection – and had always been comfortable with it given none of the Miners involved actually lost their lives. The Head of the Council – a Mrs. Chavez – not surprisingly was not so forgiving. But unlike my drunk lady, wrote me a sweet, polite and gracious letter to implore that I rethink using the line. She also included a book that detailed the suffering of the Miners in question, to explain her views. I was mortified. I have no wish to truly upset anyone, so called Jonny for advice. His response has stuck with me to this day: “Gouldie – sadly the reality is this. Show me a gag that doesn’t offend someone, and I’ll show you a gag that isn’t funny!”
He is of course right – by definition someone somewhere is always the butt of any joke. And to determine therefore whether a joke is acceptable or not, one must consider the context, the delivery, the tone and the journey of a joke. Do you remember Joan Rivers? She was the first comedian to tell a joke about the 9/11 attacks – and get away with it.
Jimmy Carr I would suggest has picked up Miss Rivers mantle for pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Is he the only comedian to even attempt to make a joke about the Holocaust – let alone get away with it? On another level Ricky Gervais was recently asked in an interview: “Can words be racist?” To which he responded: “No! What’s racist is intent, tone, and context!” And I wholeheartedly agree. I am clearly no Ricky Gervais or Jimmy Carr but last night I helped raise £11 million in Dubai for the Billion Meals Appeal. And I didn’t mention Chilean Miners once.
To continue to grow and improve you have to be willing to fail.
Until next time!