Craig Ferguson has defied the odds his entire life. He has failed when he should have succeeded and succeeded when he should have failed. The fact that he is neither dead nor in a locked facility (at the time of printing) is something of a miracle in itself. In Craig’s candid and revealing memoir, readers will get a look into the mind and recollections of the unique and twisted Scottish American who became a national hero for pioneering the world’s first TV robot skeleton sidekick and reviving two dudes in a horse suit dancing as a form of entertainment.
In Riding the Elephant, there are some stories that are too graphic for television, too politically incorrect for social media, or too meditative for a stand-up comedy performance. Craig discusses his deep love for his native Scotland, examines his profound psychic change brought on by fatherhood, and looks at aging and mortality with a perspective that he was incapable of as a younger man. Each story is strung together in a colorful tapestry that ultimately reveals a complicated man who has learned to process—and even enjoy—the unusual trajectory of his life.
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Riding the Elephant
In the time before I loved you, I never thought of the world as precious. It had value to me only in its sensuality and its ability to satiate my appetites. This was the time when I was ruled by the tyranny of desire. If I couldn't eat it or snort it or own it or drink it or make it cry or laugh or give me money, then it was invisible to me. I had no empathy, but used sentimentality and wit and slurred prose to cloak my ugliness. Even then I was reaching out to find you, almost imperceptible, a daisy on a mountain of shit. Even now when I warm the pool of recollection and look into its depths I can see the ice melt around the old monsters and watch them cast a sleepy eye to the surface on the off chance of an opportunity to attack.
It was a time of a quiescent conscience but not a deep, restful sleep. I thrashed around in the nightmares. In the cold light of day though, or in the neon, I didn't give a fuck. I sang and danced and joked in the spotlights; I drank and snorted in the bars and clubs and made as much bloody noise as I could so I couldn't hear the discordant hymns of purity and constancy that whined incessantly at low volume in the background. This was a time when I would tear the burned flesh of the dead with my canines and drink stolen mother's milk so that riding on the back of a majestic, sad, captured god would not even register as an issue of morality. I would not be comfortable riding an elephant today, but I was a different man then, and although I do not ask for your forgiveness for who I was, I humbly apologize to the elephant, wherever she may be.
I had been separated from my wife, Anne, for a few months before I attempted my first adult relationship. Her name was Helen and she was an actress. She was English and was older than me and had a cool Mazda RX-7 with pop-up headlights. She wore a perfume called Giorgio that proclaimed proudly that it came from Beverly Hills on its expensive-looking yellow-and-white packaging. Helen had chic Italian clothes with padded shoulders. She had performed Shakespeare in the theater and been on really good television shows and had known Ian Curtis when she was at school. She knew famous people who were still alive too, and she took reasonably priced holidays to exotic places, sometimes with those famous people. She rode horses, for God's sake. She could have groceries in her refrigerator and not eat them all in the same day; she could pay her bills and make appointments on time. I was bewitched by her functionality. That's not to say she was boring. On the contrary, she had a great laugh and an unpredictable temper. She was, to all outward appearances, a well-rounded human being, although I question that now given that she chose to be in a relationship with a recently separated unsuccessful alcoholic stand-up comedian eight years her junior. I was telling a lot of lies to myself about who I was then; perhaps she was unfortunate enough to believe some of them too.
Helen wanted to go Sri Lanka. She had read about it in a magazine. She showed me the pictures. Charming jungle scenery and giant golden Buddhas. I didn't care about going to Sri Lanka, but I didn't want Helen to know I was that provincial so I enthusiastically agreed. Although I could ill afford it, I borrowed some more money from my increasingly concerned bank, and we bought tickets and booked a hotel.
Although Helen had questionable taste in men, she wasn't an idiot; we had separate finances the entire five years we were together. Smart move, I'd say.
The problem with trying to hide active alcoholism from someone you live with is one of balance. You have to drink because you're an alcoholic, but you don't want to appear too drunk because then the poor unfortunate that is supposedly in a relationship with you might insist on you getting help. That's the last fucking thing you want because every drinking alcoholic knows "getting help" means stopping drinking, and that is unthinkable. Keeping your shit together is a tightrope act and is only halfway possible with luck, good timing, and cocaine. Even then it doesn't always work.
Let's be honest, it hardly ever works.
It never works.
The con I was selling Helen on the flight from London to Sri Lanka was that I was drinking iced tonic water, but on an early bathroom trip I had bribed the charming Tamil flight attendant to slip a double vodka into every drink I asked for. Consequently, I slept most of the second half of the journey, and then had to pretend I didn't have a head like a brown dog as we went through customs and immigration into the surrealism of Colombo at night. I suppose if you live in Colombo it's not strange at all, but if you get off a plane having never experienced anything like it before, it is-or was, I haven't been there in nearly thirty years-a sensory overload in the speedball class, that charming if slightly fatal mixture of heroin and cocaine. Literally takes you in two directions at the same time.
The traffic and noise and heat and moisture and smell of the city slammed me the minute I stepped from the airport. The only time I had experienced anything like the climate was in the steam room of one of the health spas that Helen was so fond of. I didn't like the atmosphere of that steam room even when I wasn't wearing jeans and a leather jacket or suffering from a knee-buckling secret vodka headache or experiencing small, fierce taxi drivers yelling at me in a language I didn't understand.
We made a deal and got into a taxi, an old Morris Minor. Every vehicle in Colombo was an old Morris Minor except for the buses, which were giant red double-deckers that had been bought as a job lot from London Transport. They still had the black destination signs on the front and I was thunderstruck to see my local, the thirteen to Stoke Newington, rumble past with at least fifty more passengers than would ever have been permitted in London, even at rush hour on a bank holiday Friday.
We stayed in a big Western hotel in the city that night and the next day I ate a dog.
I didn't mean to eat a dog. Please don't tell our dogs about this. I was hoodwinked by providence and a horrifying mixture of restaurateur opportunism and the excessive desire of bourgeois tourists to not offend.
Helen wanted to see some of the city before we headed down to the resort we would be staying in on the coast. Like the good little yuppies we were, we wanted to experience the local cuisine, but the authenticity which was essential for dinner party anecdotes dictated we couldn't go anywhere that was in a guidebook or a map. This was the last week of the 1980s. There was no Yelp or Internet or even cell phones, really. We organized our lives by Filofax, which was woefully inadequate for on-the-spot restaurant recommendations. After getting lost in a labyrinthine network of satisfyingly cinematic side streets, we eventually settled on a caf that had a few local customers sitting at a Formica table playing dominoes. There was a ceiling fan that was moving so slowly it could have been a clock, and a neon sign for a beer I'd never heard of.
A friendly apple-cheeked waiter come to our table and said hello enthusiastically. We said hello and asked for a menu and he said hello again and we asked if he spoke English and he said hello again. It became clear that either he was really keen to get his hello message across or he had reached the extent of his knowledge of the language. In the time-honored tradition of travelers, I pointed at the beer sign and held up two fingers.
He said hello again and went off to fetch our drinks.
While he was away I expressed some reservation about ordering food in this place, but Helen would have none of it. We had to experience it or else what was the point. I said the point might be to avoid dysentery and she called me a racist so I shut up in a huff.
Mr. Hello came back with what I have to admit were two deliciously cold bottled beers, and after we'd had a few each-Helen never questioned my drinking in tropical climates for some reason-my mood lightened and I decided I was in fact being a racist and we should eat. I asked our waiter for a menu and his answer was, predictably I suppose, Hello.
I mimed opening a book and then eating and he mimed opening a book and shook his head, which I assumed to mean "no menus." He then mimed eating and nodded and waggled his elbows in the universal sign for chicken and said, "Bawk."
"Bawk?" I asked.
"Bawk," he confirmed.
"Bawk good?" I asked.
"Hello," he replied.
I said "bawk" again and pointed to myself and mimed eating. He smiled and pointed at Helen.
"Bawk?" he asked.
She shook her head and I gave her a stern look.
"I'm not that hungry. I'll just have some of yours," she said, throwing me under the bus.
We drank some more beers and got chatting to the domino players and were invited to sit for a game. Dominoes being a splendid pastime which requires no one to speak the same language, things were going swimmingly. I had almost forgotten about my food order until it was placed in front of me. A blue willow-pattern plate bearing a dark brown stew on a bed of white rice. I'll never forget it.
That was at a time when I ate chicken. I am, to this day, familiar with the smell and consistency of chicken even when it is diced and smuggled into my presence under a thick blanket of aromatic curry sauce. I know chicken and this, my dear, was not one. Never had been.
"Bawk!" said Mr. Hello, proudly.
I looked at the plate with suspicion. I glanced at Helen, who looked concerned. I looked at the other players, who were smiling at me in the most charming and friendly "go ahead and eat your lovely plate of chicken" way.
"Bawk?" I asked again.
Everybody assured me it was indeed bawk and they all, including Helen at this point, looked excited at the thought of me eating it. I bowed to pressure and took a forkful.
You know when you eat dog. Even if you have never eaten dog before, you know. It somehow tastes like you would think it would, which you probably haven't thought about until now. It tastes a little like how dogshit smells but with curry. There was a lot of spice but it was in there. A four-legged friend.
I looked at the waiter.
"Woof?" I asked.
The domino players and the waiter were horrified. Lots of exclamations and shaking of heads and assurances of bawk. I was skeptical, and when I refused to eat more, an unpleasant tension came into the air. Helen told me I should knock it off and eat more so as not to be rude. I said that it was fucking dog and that if she wanted to be polite she could eat it. She told me she wasn't hungry and anyway she would never knowingly eat a dog. I told her I would never knowingly eat a dog either, and she said she couldn't because she was a former Miss East Cheshire Pony Club, as if that had anything to do with it. In the interest of world peace I took a few more disgusting mouthfuls of man's best friend and then made the tummy-rub sign for being full. Mr. Hello and the Domino Gang seemed to be happy to let it go at that. We paid and left pretty soon afterward and as we walked away from the caf we both pretended not to hear the barking noises and laughing coming from within.
The next day we were driven in a Morris Minor to the coastal resort that we were booked into for a week. Sri Lankan driving may have improved since December 1989, and I hope for the Sri LankansÕ sake it has. I also hope they donÕt have teenage soldiers at checkpoints every ten miles or so either. That was a bit buttock-clenchy too, although clenched buttocks was exactly what I required given the night I had spent on a Lassie-fueled gastrointestinal thrill ride.
I still felt queasy as we pulled up to the gates of the swanky resort. I don't know if the discomfort was left over from my run-in with Scooby Stew or the sickness I have always felt in the presence of third world economics, a feeling I increasingly experience when I'm in Los Angeles. Extreme wealth flaunting itself up against extreme poverty, or you could express it the other way round, I suppose, if you were a heartless asshole.
We drove past a man at the gate who was wearing a threadbare version of what I assumed to be traditional Sri Lankan costume. He was smoking, but took the cigarette from his mouth and waved at us as we drove past. Next to him stood a sad-looking gray Indian elephant. It was large, of course-bigger than the man, bigger than the Morris Minor, bigger than the security gates-but pretty small for an elephant. She (as I later found out) had a decorative headdress on, the type traditionally used on her species by now-defunct cruel circuses. She looked like an old person in a cancer ward who's been dressed up by the nurses for a visitor. It was crushingly sad, or maybe I had a terrible hangover, or maybe both. The man and I locked eyes for a moment and he smiled at me, really smiled. He didn't look sad at all.
"What's that about?" I asked the driver.
"That man will give elephant ride, sir. Not as good as a car. Very slow," he told me, helpfully.
The resort wasn't particularly expensive, but it was in a part of the world where just a few pounds, dollars, or deutsche marks went a long way. I hated it. I felt guilty being there. The view was beautiful, of course. Open lobby facing out onto an impossible azure ocean and a white-sand beach, but the vista was marred by overweight cartoon Westerners sunning themselves and napping like some tropical species of albino walrus. Uniformed security guards kept local beggars from trespassing onto the precious resort sand or approaching the guests.
Table of Contents
1 Riding the Elephant 1
2 Mad Nomad 16
3 Out, Damned Spot 26
4 Duke et Decorum Est 36
5 An Education of Sorts 47
6 Swim Davie 63
7 The Festival 74
8 A Right Song and Dance 86
9 Down Under 94
10 The Helpers 104
11 Four Queens 111
12 Four Kings 125
13 Love and Bullshit 135
14 2008 145
15 Learning to Fly 171
16 Therapy 182
17 Resentment 190
18 A Marked Man 199
19 Japanese Bar Mitzvah 213
20 Morning at LAX 225
21 Draining the Swamp 231
22 Millport 247
23 Margaret 256
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a great journey again with Craig Ferguson.. Great sharp stories about live and living and honest self reflection at all points in his life and career. Great book. Strongly Recommend!
normally I’m not a fan of bathroom humor; but, I laughed out loud at his description of his experience with a toilet in Japan. I’m sure I will never view the fountains outside the Bellagio in Vegas the same way.
Wow. It was funny and raw and so honest. It made me grin and, sometimes, put a giant, sentimental lump in my throat. I had no idea Mr. Ferguson was such a talented writer. I can’t wait for the next book!