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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Stewart Lee

Which will melt away first, the snow or the arts?

Illustration by David Foldvari of a ski map with comedy venues on the mountaintops.
Illustration by David Foldvari. Illustration: David Foldvari/The Observer

Nineteen years ago now, I was asked to perform my standup high in the Colorado Rockies at the Aspen comedy festival, a trade fair for the American comedy industry patronised by wealthy locals. In super-affluent Aspen, I discovered, to my horror, economically uncompetitive service industry workers were homed in special “employee housing projects”, like castrated catering cyborgs from a Russian science fiction novel, sleeping in pods, dreaming of electric sheep. But today that system seems benign compared with the housing poverty of Sunak island.

In Aspen, the famous comedians were domiciled in luxury hotels. I was in a cheap motel on the edge of town, where I breakfasted daily with a quartet of equally undervalued underground comic book writers, regarded as witless savants nonetheless capable of providing content by the predatory industry vampires. Daniel Clowes told me the contents of his Oscar ceremony goody bag – the film of his Ghost World comic was nominated – were worth more than everything he had earned as a writer to that point.

The Aspen audience nested in the isolated Fabergé eyries of their mountaintop Frank Lloyd Wright villas, overlooking snow-capped peaks and quaffing the finest wines, fed by servants they housed in dormitories. Did they really need to be amused by my jokes about farts and US foreign policy? Anyone whose act goes down well in Aspen probably has to ask themselves what is wrong with it. Ideally, one would write a set so excoriating the audience would climb over their sun terraces and hurl themselves to their deaths.

Wealth and the arts are strange bedfellows. Keir Starmer speechified a good speech at the Labour Creatives conference this month, but it will take more than free infant school recorder lessons and an old man remembering proper music like the Wedding Present and the Juicy Oranges to reignite the cultural explosion that burned through postwar Britain and gave us the international soft diplomatic heft to erase our imperial embarrassment. At the moment, it’s barely affordable to be a doctor. Starmer needs to make it affordable to be an artist, because the value of art is beyond financial metrics. All that artists really need is a garret, a muse and some laudanum. When I moved to Hackney in the 90s, you couldn’t move for muses. Now the muses have all been priced out and gone to live in Glasgow. And Tory politicians have snaffled all the laudanum.

Most punters and performers at the Edinburgh festival fringe, for example, are now either well heeled, happy to camp 10 miles away and cycle in like serfs, or lucky enough to have a relative there who always goes away in August to escape actors shrieking about Andrew Scott in sandwich shops.

Top private schools have better theatre facilities than the entire city of Gloucester. Unlike Gloucester, Eton doesn’t have a cheese named after it or a famous serial killer, admittedly. But it does produce loads of famously cheesy actors, one of whom, Dominic West, got to play a serial killer from Gloucester with the same surname. Put down those puppets! The arts ain’t for you any more, peasants. Back in auspicious alpine Aspen, you could even ski after you’d consumed your culture.

I, of course, chose not to. At my first secondary school games lesson, I rejected all sport for ever, having been ritually humiliated for dropping a weird-shaped ball I’d never seen before by our games teacher, a former rugby international, bonding like a coward with the alpha males. He gave me no choice but to become a writer.

But I wish I had taken that one-off opportunity to go skiing in Aspen. Because within our lifetimes, obviously, the sport of skiing is going to melt out of existence, along with the snowfields that sustain it. Old James Bond films will be digitally corrected to show an out-of-shape Roger Moore wearing goggles and making snappy one-liners about decapitation while he just runs fast down scorched Swiss hillsides.

On Monday, one of the last lines of legal defence for climate protesters who damage property – namely, the beliefs of a defendant – was removed by Tom Little KC and the lady chief justice of England and Wales, Sue Carr, two of these lefty lawyers we read about in the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s worst newspaper. Juries must not consider the “wider motivation” of the defendant and “evidence… about the facts of climate change would be inadmissible”. You can prove anything with facts.

In the same week, the geophysicist and author of Hothouse Earth, Bill McGuire, calmly explained that mid-21st-century Britain will be looking at 46C (115F) summer highs and catastrophic flash flooding. It’s too late now to stop this. Hot enough for ya?

On the last night of the 2005 Aspen comedy festival, the writer Jonathan Ames, Hemingway in a green beanie, whom I admired enormously, declared he would somehow get those of us not important enough to have been invited – him, me and the comic book writers – into the private house party of the richest man in Aspen. Somehow, Ames bulldozed the door-staff at the mountaintop mansion and tailgated us in behind a Sex and the City writer he had charmed. In the bathroom, framed photos showed our host shaking hands with successive American presidents, irrespective of their political affiliations.

Twelve hours later I found myself drinking the last Beck’s alone on a frosted wooden terrace wedged into an icy cliff. I saw a cold gold sun rise, like Shiva the Destroyer, over a die-cut Rocky Mountain snowscape and I clicked the shutter on a Polaroid memory. Then I was finally escorted out by security staff, who I think had known all night that I, like them, would never have been asked to a party like that. I didn’t ski in Aspen. But I’m glad I briefly slid into the social slipstream and saw that snowy scene. I suspect it’s already less impressive and won’t last the century.

  • Stewart Lee’s Basic Lee is at Cambridge Arts theatre 15-16 April

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at

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