toby-littkatie-cooke

The Meme


Short Fiction by Toby Litt

 

Was it just because Keith’s upper arms wobbled as he shouted and fell; because he was – let’s face it – fat? Was that why ours rather than a billion other clips – went viral? And not just viral – for a few weeks in twenty fifteen, we became the YouTube equivalent of The Black Death. Keith was killing it, as we used to say – everywhere, multi-platform. Keith, smashing down onto soccer players and al-Quaeda hideouts and kittens. Keith, my friend, the most epic fatboy fail of all.

You probably don’t remember this, it was such a long time ago, but even the Leader of the Opposition, during Prime Minister’s Questions, said, ‘..and would the Chancellor of the Exchequor say of the British Economy, in those now-infamous words, “It’s falling – it’s falling – I broke it!”?’

I have a theory about why the success – why this kind of clip; I have lots of theories – because I have lots of time, now I’m retired from the industry, to come up with lots of theories. This wasn’t just about people laughing at fat guys because they were fat. What people really found really funny, back then, was animals doing stupid, weird, counterintuitive stuff. And the only thing they found funnier than this, I think, was people doing weird, stupid, counterintuitive stuff whilst dressed up as animals. Those two drunk Canadian guys dressed as bears, with big bear paws, trying to open that can of beer before the train comes, and then dying. Do you remember that? Or that guy dressed as a chicken in ice-skates, who proposes to his girlfriend over the tannoy, halftime at some ice-hockey match – and she tells him she’s in love with his father, who’s the referee? Yeah, that one – (though I always thought it was probably fake). But none of those would have been the same without the big, bulky animal suits turning the people into not-quite-people. And I think the thing is with really fat people, like Keith was, God love him, is they always already had the animal suit on. That extra flesh acted as a distancing device – so you didn’t worry so much about what was happening to them happening to you. When people watched clips, like they used to, they had to associate with what was happening but also be distanced because – let’s be honest here – we’re talking mainly about cruelty and humiliation and schaudenfreude. But even fat people watching fat people doing stupid stuff felt that disassociation. Because, and this is another theory, we watch screens with our bones not our flesh. We are an audience of skeletons and nerves. And our bones are capable of being Jason Bourne or James Bond, despite whatever is really cloaked around them. In our dreams and in our video games, we’re stick figures and are probably weightless.

Video games is what I know most about, because that’s the area of the industry I moved into after the “it’s falling – it’s falling” clip took off. Not immediately. To begin with it was other clips and then advertisements, small budget then big. But I realise that so much time has passed, and so many memes have come and gone, that I need to exposition some backstory – no other way to do it: Keith and myself grew up in an English village called Amplewick. It had a cute clock-tower in the middle, and big parks to walk your dog in – if you had a dog and if you could be arsed to go for walks. Keith and I couldn’t.

Looking back, it doesn’t seem so hellish, but at the time, for ninteen year old virgins, we believed it to be the world place in God’s creation. The Village of the Dumbed.

Neither of us could drive, and the last bus back from Bedford on a Saturday night left at nine thirty five. (Bedford was the nearest big party town.) So, instead of having girlfriends and sex, we did a lot of filming. And because my parents were protective of their beautiful house, and Keith’s parents were fat and rarely left the sofa, we did most of our movies upstairs at his. The best place was the attic, because that’s where the model his great-grandfather made was kept.

Now, if there’s a hero of all this – or a victim – it’s Keith’s great-grandfather. His full name was Shlomo Ben-Ezra, and I don’t need to tell you he wasn’t Catholic. Shlomo was one of those wonderfully useful people born in 1900, so you could track them through the century, and the century through them. Fourteen years-old for the First World War; thirty-nine for the Second.

The early part, Shlomo spent around the Krakow area, working as a cobbler. He married aged thirty-nine but his young bride got pregnant straight away. They escaped Europe about as late as possible, 1940, and were there when Hitler rolled into Paris. They saw him from the rooftop where they’d been sleeping.

I never got to meet Shlomo – there’s a picture of him holding newborn Keith, but he died within two weeks of it being taken. He was ninety-seven years old.

After the war, he spent a lot of time in mental hospitals in the Kent countryside. He wrote some poetry during the nineteen fifties, mostly about what he saw blackbirds doing.

Keith’s grandfather, Isaac, conceived in Poland and born in London, was brought up by an aunt in Margate after his mother jumped into the Thames. Isaac Shlomo became Sonny Simmons and became a carpet salesman. A lot of new carpets were required in the immediate post-war era. Eventually, Sonny got into rug manufacturing and got wealthy.

By this time his father Shlomo wasn’t dangerously mad, just a silent old man. After the blackbird poetry, he’d become involved with occupational therapy. That was big news in the 1960s. They allowed the patients glue and matchsticks without the strikable heads, and this was when Shlomo began to build Paris.

Some of you are remembering the clip now, aren’t you? Shlomo began, apparently, with a couple of lamp-posts and a tobacconist’s boutique, then moved straight on to constructing Notre Dame Cathedral – which took him until August 1974.

Most of these details come from a thing Keith sent me, a couple of decades ago. It was one of his hectoring ones, just after he became a father for the first time. I did reply but he didn’t respond.

After Notre Dame, Shlomo obviously had his gluing chops up to speed, because the rest of the Ile de la Cite only took him another decade. By this time, he was out of the mental hospital and living in Berkhamstead with Sonny and Sonny’s wife, Babs, and their son Roger. Sonny let grandpa have the whole top floor of their big mock-Tudor house. Shlomo slept on a daybed and only came down to eat in the kitchen or use the toilet on the second floor. Apart from that, and a yearly trip down to the beach at Margate, he built Paris out of glue and matchsticks.

It wasn’t complete when he died – how could it have been? – but the centre was there. And he had included crowds of Parisians waving terrified little flags, and – of course – the whole point of it, I suppose – he’d got a scale-model Adolf Hitler in the back of a big matchstick Mercedes Benz.

The Fuhrer wasn’t made out of matchsticks; the only thing in the whole city that wasn’t. Somehow, Shlomo had ordered Hitler through the post from a modelling supply shop. There he was, our favourite – Keith and myself – giving the old Heil Me salute.

After Shlomo’s death, and after Sonny’s rug manufacturing business went bankrupt, and after Keith’s eventual father, Roger Simmons, had left home, become a pharmacologist, married, divorced, remarried, and moved to Amplewick – the scale-model passed to him. I heard they had to take the front part of the roof off to lift it in, and have a winch inside the house to move it the last few metres across. And the winch was the beginning, you might say, of Keith’s downfall.

Because, in that dusty attic, with Paris in miniature, and no late bus back from Bedford – we began – as Roger and Marcella ate walnut whips and Caramel Angel Delights and sat on the sofa – we began to make funny war movies.

Our friends were all into sci-fi – and if Shlomo had built a Death Star, like we usually wished he had, we would definitely have done George Lucas stuff. Instead, we got our cameras close up and low down and used fast editing and downloaded verité crowd noises to suggest the Parisians were really alive and cheering.

Even then I sometimes used to wonder what Shlomo would think of how we were using his creation. Matchstick Paris was, I’m guessing, his never-forget-the-Holocaust. And in a way, because of Keith and myself and “It’s falling – It’s falling” and YouTube – he succeeded. Because over half a billion people ended up seeing “The Fall of Paris”, which is the title we first gave the clip.

I’m sure you remember it, even if you weren’t born then. A fat boy is up on a winch, pretending to be a superhero. He is not badly lit, if I say so myself. I was the art director on all this, and I’d assembled about five of those high-power torches. Using the overhead strip-lights made the city look lame. But uplit from the floor, the place looked – as we used to say – epic.

I had two cameras, both on tripods. Once I set them going, I could run across and operate the winch. We also intercut flyover footage from a camera I held in my hands while Keith winched me over the wooden rooftops. So maybe him being fat did have something major to do with it, because the canvas straps hadn’t given way while I was filming. In that case, we’d just have ended up with a meaningless point of view shot with no context.

Instead, we get Keith with his high voice and his wobbly arms, in jeans and T-shirt, flying heroically towards Notre Dame. Halfway across the masterpiece that took Shlomo all those years of hours to create, the canvas strap which had always seemed a little dry and dusty began to give way. And Keith kept on narrating and I – it’s not that I kept on filming, the cameras would have run anyway, it’s that I didn’t try to pull Keith back so he landed away from Notre Dame. I – I just stood and, like half a billion others, watched – and laughed –you can hear me on the clip – I laughed at Keith – because he is so, so funny. The way he says “It’s falling” instead of “I’m falling”. The way he repeats it, his voice getting higher as he gets lower. And then the perfect way he crashlands, right between the towers of the Cathedral, blam, straight through the roof, totalling the thing in a cloud of ancient dust.

Afterwards, when we watched it, he agreed it was very funny, and that I should edit it and put it online. I didn’t force him into that, no matter what he might’ve said in interviews. Keith knew all about memes – and we had a sense this might take off. But no-one can predict instant global fame. No-one could have known Keith’s ride would happen so fast or be so wild.

I loaded the clip from my laptop, went to bed, and by the morning the Black Death was already unstoppable. Within one week, a local TV news crew came to interview him. We hated this, because this was when Roger learned what had happened to his grandfather’s creation. Until then, we’d kept quiet about it. We’d even attempted, not very well, to repair Notre Dame.

In the end, a modellers’ club from Slough volunteered to do the whole reconstruction for free – and managed to complete work in less than three months. But Roger’s initial reaction from was to ban me from the house. Keith emailed his prison journal: “Day four, Caramel Angel Delight and Strictly.” But it was the TV people, not me, who broke him out – BBC, Fox News, Sky and Al-Jazeera.

A month after he fell through the roof, Keith shot up into the blogosphere. People knew about me, too, because “The Fall of Paris” was on my YouTube channel, next to my picture. And it was my logo came up at the end. People knew me, but a different kind of people. I was offered money to put some viral marketing clips up on my channel, a couple of which I took. I signed a deal for advertising, after the first million hits and then, after the next ten million, paid a lawyer to renegotiate.

While Keith was off in America, doing the Daily Show and Conan, I put together the “Making Of” documentary. I had plenty of other footage from our lonely Saturday nights in Amplewick. Our first stop-motion war movie. Keith giving a guided tour of Paris in a Hitler voice. And I like to think it was this documentary, rather than just the “It’s falling – it’s falling” clip that got me my break in the industry.

Keith came back from fame in America and was really depressed. I paid him half of the money I’d made – exactly half. He didn’t pay me any of his appearance fees.

There was a scene between us, in the attic where it all started, which, even at the time, felt really unreal – Keith had the page up on his screen, and as we talked, and as he told me he felt betrayed and used and didn’t want to see me again, he refreshed the page, and told me how many more people had watched him look like a stupid fat idiot ruining something that a noble Jewish man had taken a third of a century to create.

I told him it wasn’t like that, but Keith said I should have run the rough cut of the “Making Of” documentary past him. The original clip made him look stupid and fat, but the documentary made him look disrespectful. I’d even included a bit from an earlier film where he laughed at Shlomo and called him a “mad old loser”.

Maybe Keith was right – maybe that shouldn’t have been in there. But I felt it added a note of pathos that was essential to the whole emotional journey. We weren’t total innocents, not me, not Keith.

Anyway, I wasn’t in Amplewick very much after the you-betrayed-me scene. I moved to London and began working as a consultant for a viral marketing agency. I’d sold them my YouTube channel, for a share. They let me make my first proper ad, something selling home insurance. We reused the matchstick model concept, but it was just some schmuck’s uninsured semi-detatched our fat actor was crash-landing on.

I still had a couple of friends in Amplewick, and they told me about how even more fat Keith had become. How they only saw him drinking pints of bitter in the Albion. How he had been arrested for sexual harrassment – I read the details online – then charged and then found guilty. He only served a couple of months. Then someone tweeted about his new videos, and watched one. It was this big rant about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I mean, pure Jewish self-hatred, and it was ugly – especially the Heil Hitler bit at the end.

About a year later, there was a brief apology video. In it, Keith was slimmer. He’d gone Orthodox, hairwise. Then he properly moved to Israel and found a home in a kibbutz.

I went to try and see him, in twenty twenty five, but he was out working and the next day I returned these soldiers wouldn’t let me past the gate. I got a handwritten note: “I think you broke it”, it read. The you was underlined.

Years of silence before, two weeks ago, he got in touch again. We spoke. Even on screen, he looked too thin, because – he said – he had cancer of the oesophagus. What he wanted to do was let me know he sort of forgave me but didn’t entirely forgive me. He still felt furious, he said. I had destroyed his life, but the life he remade was better. So he supposed life had been how it had been. Maybe that’s what he should accept. He began to become incoherent, and speak about flying over Paris as if he’d actually done it and I’d actually filmed it – as if he’d been a Jewish superhero in the Second World War who’d stopped Hitler. Then a nurse came to calm him down. I was still in shock from his appearance, and knowing he was going to die before me. I wondered whether I should apologize, so I could say I had, when the people came to interview me. But I did not apologize. Like Keith said, our lives if we’d been unfamous and stayed in Amplewick would have been worse.

In the end, I don’t think “The Fall of Paris” humiliated Keith. Not really. And Shlomo’s model was eventually gifted to a museum in Colchester, where people look at it and are forced to think about Adolf Hitler and the Jews – which otherwise they wouldn’t.

 

 

‘The Meme’ (as ‘The Fall of Paris’) was broadcast on Radio 4 as part of the Short Rides in Fast Machines series, produced by Jeremy Osborne for Sweet Talk, read by Julian Rhind-Tutt, Fri 28 Nov 2014