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From Summer Fields to Motion Sickness 

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Sam Bennett
From Summer Fields to Motion Sickness Ivo Graham
© Matt Stronge 

Ivo Graham talks vegetarianism, Eton and real virginity with Sam Bennett

Ivo Graham talks to me on the phone at short notice, “the benefit of being self-employed,” the stand-up says. “There are enormous windows of immediately available time.” He has some chicken cooking in the background, it’s nearly ready. “You know what, Sam, I'm going to turn it off – what a thrilling domestic insight.” He’s actually “trying to be more veggie” but he and his fiancée had guests yesterday for lunch “and there’s a bit of chicken left, so I'm clearing out the fridge – sometimes that feels like a more immediate priority.”

I tell him I attempted vegetarianism once, that I wasn’t eating enough anyway, and cutting out meat just meant I ate even less. It wasn’t a serious problem, but it wasn’t healthy – I was hungry. “I can understand that,” he says. “You do have to work a bit harder to constantly be eating quite filling vegetable things. ‘Another f*cking falafel wrap – the fourth this week.’ It is hard, that.” Of course, he’s not being very veggie at this precise moment in time, “but I have been trying.”

Maybe it’s part of his growing up – something at the heart of the 28-year-old’s new show Motion Sickness. “It's very sweet of you to have read the press release,” he says. “It's obviously very tempting to just whack everything under one big umbrella of self-improvement and personality transformation, but I don't think my life operates on that sort of organised and macro level. I largely do things as they occur to me. But I suppose trying to be more responsible with one's diet and ecological morals is part of growing up.”

With February being our Love Issue, I ask if this subject features in his show. “I’ve always touched on it from slightly varying angles. A lot of my earlier stuff was self-deprecating, self-pitying material about not having terrific luck with the opposite sex, which was all very much based in truth. I wasn't one of those ones who was putting it on so as to score more easily after the gig, I'm proud to say, I backed up my stories with real virginity. I like love,” he resumes, “and unrequited love and bad dates and the quest for connection and stuff. I'll watch endless amounts of twee films and read twee books about that sort of thing. I quite like being the star of my own lovelorn romantic dramas – if that's not putting it too heavily.”

With stand-up, he states, he could reclaim and make professional use out of love-related experiences which might have been happier. “If you could tell a really funny story about someone you fancied when you were 16, who didn't really fancy you, it was like: ‘Well I've had the last laugh because I'm talking about it to 80 people in Sheffield. Where are you now, Milly? (I know exactly where you are, thanks to Facebook.)’”

That sort of material he did for a while. Then he got together with his now-fiancée and started to “talk very excitedly about that – the early stages of our relationship, the ‘I-can't-believe-I've-got-a-girlfriend’ phase.” Now as part of the continuing “project adult” that informs Motion Sickness, he’s become engaged and got a flat in London with his wife-to-be. The couple are also expecting a daughter (due on Valentine’s Day). “I've knocked her up, Sam,” he states in his somewhat posh accent, “intentionally.”

He’s spoken onstage about his time at boarding school Eton, making jokes about repression. “You want to talk about somewhere like Eton as part of your stand-up because you think it's interesting and gives you something unique in your otherwise broadly quite generic life. But you're aware it's not a hugely popular school so you have to sell it in quite a charming way, a low-status way. So rather than making jokes about being rich, you make jokes about being repressed.” Oddly, he says, he feels like he was making jokes about this a long time before engaging with the idea he might have actually been so. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last year. It's only really [since] getting into an adult relationship, dealing alongside my friends with more adult challenges, and maybe even seeing my own parents, as they get older, deal with various things in their lives, that I have started to think about it more.” He had some therapy last year. “I was struggling with a few things and was intrigued by whether talking about them would help. I'd never really done anything like that before. It was interesting to chat about how things might be rooted in the ongoing repression of private education, boarding school, and the very British stiff upper lipped thing. The hard thing is I'm still not entirely sure how much I agree, but then how much of that is just more of the ongoing denial? If you say ‘I wasn't repressed by boarding school’, is that just your repression speaking even louder because you're getting close to cracking the code?”

I elect here to tell him about when I visited a councillor, a man who might have been solving all the problems put before him, but spoke so quietly any words of wisdom were lost in the ceiling fan. “It's very good of you to turn this into a two-way street. How many sessions did you go to?” I take a stab at three. “It does help a lot of people, that sort of thing. But it's hard to put your hand up and say, ‘I think I might need help with something.’ If it's rooted in a very immediate thing,” he says exemplifying someone’s death or addiction, “then you've got a very real thing to tackle. Whereas when you're going in more with the general purpose of just rooting around in your own past, just digging for something that might have caused something, it's a bit scarier almost. You're going: ‘I don't have a plan. What are we going to find and am I going to trust it?’”

He talks about the therapy in Motion Sickness, though “only quite briefly. I tried to speak about it for longer as part of the show, I do think it's interesting and I like talking about that sort of stuff, but you don't want to appear to be being flippant about something like therapy – it means so much to people and people are using it to deal with bigger stuff than you are. Also, in the most basic stand-up terms, it wasn't getting the LOLs. It was turning the middle section of my show into something of a self-pitying dirge.”

He’ll tour to The North Wall in March. He was a student at University of Oxford. What’s it going to feel like returning to the city? “I'm going to be absolutely sad,” he answers, acknowledging the syntactic shortcomings of the remark. “I loved being a student in Oxford. Even though I do have a really nice life which I absolutely love, there is something about that period which is so potent nostalgically, and something about my own character which is a slave to that sort of nostalgia, which means I don't feel (even after almost a decade) like I'm anywhere near being over that. So when I go back I do find it a bit sad because it's a time machine to such a specific period of my life. I know that's not a remotely novel thing to feel, but Oxford is that for me.”

But the location of his upcoming Oxford gig links back to a period in his life even earlier than Eton; to his first boarding school Summer Fields – about a five-minute walk from The North Wall. “The parents who really want to get rid of their children can send them away to a preparatory boarding school, such as Summer Fields – with its exquisite track record of getting boys into Eton.” He spent three years at Summer Fields before going on to Eton for five. “Again, in my continuing inquest into whether I was traumatised by boarding school, I can say pretty proudly that I really did love being at Summer Fields.”

Whatever his education, as we draw to a close I can’t deny he learnt generosity. “I hope I provided any insight at all. If you'd like me to contribute anything specific to your Love Issue, such as my top five most failed crushes, I'd be happy to – the list is never far from my mind.”

Ivo Graham plays The North Wall 8 March, 8pm.

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