I don’t usually do politics. The kind of spoken word that I do is an escape from the real world, though I do poetry about themes and society, such as LGBT issues, representation and inequality. I don’t usually do pieces about real people either, unless you count Jeremy Clarkson and Katie Hopkins, both of whom I’ve performed humorous poems about. I always see such poems as having a relatively short shelf life. I haven’t performed the Clarkson poem much since the muppet was fired from Top Gear. It was a sad day.
However this year has truly been a bummer, politically speaking, not only with that whole Brexit thing, (what the hell was all that shout?), and the populism of that Farage bloke, the rise of the rather spooky Teresa May, (again obliterating one of my poems, in which I mention ‘Home Secretary Teresa May. Short shelf life, you see), but rather more scarily, the ominous buffoonery of Donald Trump.
I’ve tried to make sense of all this as the ultimate expression of celebrity culture, the rise of anti-intellectualism, image over content, bluster as a signifier of the supposedly downtrodden. The result of the Europe referendum demonstrated, to my way of thinking, the wilful protest of the supposedly under-represented. Both Farage and Trump have grasped the idea that it doesn’t matter what lies you tell, as long as you sound angry. They have created situations in which there is a supposed opposition to everything which their supporters only just now realise that they cherish. Abstract concepts such as freedom, identity of the dominant culture, fear of change, the foreign Other. The more they shout and lie, the more popular they get, because the lies are so obvious that they’ve become conceptual anti-political protests.
I’d like to write poetry about this. But none of it is very poetic. The best way to fight bluster and bullying is often with humour, and that’s happening a lot in the US but not so much over here. I can’t remember who said that you can’t win an argument against stupidity. But when the stupidity is a purposeful tactic to win arguments, that’s when we should be worried.
The Pet Shop Boys did a song called I’m With Stupid, which had the line, ‘Is stupid really stupid, or a different kind of smart?’
Will all of this blow over? Probably not. Mr Trump hopefully won’t win the election, but you can never be too sure. People are being put off politics, including the politicians, and this will lead to a whole generation of media-managed calculated blundering, office as character, celebrity warmongering.
In 2011 I went to Australia and had a great time in Cairns and the surrounding rainforest, just poking around and writing bad poetry and doing all of the usual touristy things. It was rather hot and everyone was relaxed and friendly, and I decided that I would spend a couple of days in Tokyo on the way back, you know, seeing as though I was in the neighbourhood.
It was a long flight from Cairns to Tokyo and when I arrived I caught a bus to the city and found the hotel, by which time it was about midnight, only to find that he hotel had completely lost any information about my stay. Not exactly an adventure, I know, but I was jet lagged, tired, and kind of culturally confused after having just arrived from the rainforest of Australia to the most modern metropolis on the planet.
While I was there an idea came for a novella which I started writing immediately, jotting down paragraphs and descriptions as I walked around the city. I flew back to England and wrote the whole manuscript in a couple of weeks. I’d just finished the last few paragraphs when I discovered that there had been the earthquake and the tsunami. My thoughts turned to the people I’d met and I wondered how they were and whether they’d lost loved ones.
I spent the next couple of years refining the manuscript and rewriting it, but at the same time my performance poetry was picking up and I really became swamped with poetry and spoken word gigs, until I put the manuscript aside and completely forgot about it for three years or so. By chance I came across it this year and thought, hmmm, I should really do something with this.
So I have published ‘Reception’ in all its glory. Rereading it now is a strange experience because it brings back so many of the people and situations I found myself in. Almost all of the novel is true, from the young lady I met in the coffee shop, to the man playing bagpipes. The back story of the Robert character, involving Ryan and Darren, is completely made up, though the idea of it came to me while I was in Tokyo.
It’s a happy little book which I really enjoyed writing. My style has changed dramatically since, so it’s a fascinating insight into the preoccupations I had at the time, and the philosophical nuance which I laid over everything. Sufficient distance has passed for it to read as if someone else has written it.
Reception is for sale for £7.99 from the Lulu website.
Sure, there were times when I was quite trendy. Fashions and celebrity obsessions would come late to me, I was never at the cutting edge when I was a teenager, but I made an effort and I even spent a couple of years wearing a baseball cap. Every fad and fashion seemed to have its effect on me particularly in my teenage years. I had a mullet at one point. I had curtains. (They would get in my eyes as I cycled and I would have to keep brushing them out of my eyes). I had short hair, long hair, a side parting, a middle parting. I wore all kinds of luminous t-shirts in the 1990s and cut off jeans. I had trainers so big that the tongue of them came almost up to my knees. I was trendy.
In the mid 1990s I’d use so much gel that it stung my eyes whenever it rained. These were also The Thin Years. I looked all right.
In the year 2000 I adopted a spiked hair style. By this time I had concluded that I wasn’t going bald, like many of my contemporaries. The spiked hair style marked me out from other people because it wasn’t quite trendy any more. It was at least distinctive. In fact it even looked a bit retro, which I complimented by wearing tweed jackets, Converse All Star sneakers, tank tops, ties. This is the look that I’ve been adopting ever since.
But last week something horrific occurred and it’s still having an effect this week, and for the foreseeable future. I’ve bought a rain mac. Fed up with arriving at places damp in the rain, I’ve gone out and purchased the most functional rain mac you’ve ever seen. It’s plastic and it’s cosy and I don’t care that I now look like one of the men from Last of the Summer Wine. I’m rocking the rain mac look and I don’t care.
I hang around with trendy people. As a spoken word performer, my friends are rappers and musicians, trendy types with facial hair and beards, who say things like sick when they mean good, and they wear baseball caps in much more inventive ways than i ever could. How privileged that I should be permitted among their vibrant youthfulness and yet, bloody hell, I’ve bought a rain mac.
Is this the end? Is this the start of the great decline? I’m in a coffee shop as I write this and they’ve got the air conditioning on. And I’m wearing my rain mac to keep warm. I don’t care how I look and I don’t care if one of my trendy young contemporaries comes in. They probably wouldn’t think it’s very sick.
They’ve forecast rain for later. And you know what? I’m quite looking forward to it.
So something weird happened the other day, and the weird thing that happened was that I got heckled. And then two days later something weird happened again and that was that I got heckled. And the weird thing about this weird thing that happened was that this happened with the same poem. And another weird thing about this weird thing was that the heckles were both so dissimilar even though they happened during the same poem.
It’s a new poem which I use as an introduction to myself. I wrote it in Edinburgh and I performed it for the first time at the Boomerang Club when I co-headlined there. One of the inspirations for writing it was watching the wonderfully powerful performers in Edinburgh such as Dandy Darkly and Matt Panesh, people who I really admire and use language effectively. It also uses highly literary language for comic effect, accentuating the traditional idea of a spoken word poet from Shakesperian times.
So the second time I performed it was in Exeter in Sunday night, and because it’s a poem which introduces me and my oeuvre, it’s the first poem of my set. So I performed it and someone shouted out, ‘I like that!’
Which is a nice heckle. I did a stand up comedy course a few years ago and one of the sessions was all about heckling. The course instructor told us that there are several types of heckle: just helping out, saying something nice, being drunk, or showing off. So this was a saying something nice heckle, the correct response to which is, ‘thanks’. But like a deer caught in a car headlights, I just said, ‘muhhhh’.
The rest of the set went very well.
And the second time I performed the poem was in Swindon two days later. At the end of it someone shouted out, ‘That doesn’t rhyme’.
Of course it doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t have to rhyme. Poems don’t have to rhyme. Ok, there was a lot of rhymey poetry at the gig where I was performing, but my own stuff seldom rhymes. Perhaps this was a ‘just helping out’ kind of heckle, and my response to it was, ‘thanks’. Which I suppose is a delayed reaction to the heckle from the last gig.
So there we have it. I’m looking forward to performing the poem again because it seems to elicit a response of sorts. Or maybe it’s just a wacky coincidence. I don’t know. I have no idea what’s going on.
1- I used to babysit for Chesney Hawkes’ next door neighbour.
A long time ago, when I was studying for my A Levels, I used to babysit for a Dutch couple in a very posh house in Sunningdale. Which meant sitting in a strangers living room studying. Except there was a season of Neil Simon films on and I’d watch those instead. Anyway, when the couple came back one night they revealed that Chesney Hawkes lived next door. Perhaps I should have invited him round for a cuppa. I never saw him.
2- I used to date Michael Caine’s niece
Yes, shocking, isn’t it? I won’t reveal anything else about her except that we were good friends and I would love to get back in contact with her. Actually she might have been his cousin, but ‘niece’ sounds better. She was from Guyana, a place which I’ve felt a special affinity to ever since.
3- I was in Japan a couple of weeks before the tsunami.
The tsunami affected me deeply because all I could think about was the people I’d met and how much I’d loved Tokyo.
4- Elton John used to walk his dog past my grandparents house.
Apparently. Before he was mega famous. This would have been the early seventies before he moved to Old Windsor. I never saw him, but my sister did work experience in a book shop in Virginia Water. One day Elton John came in and bought four hundred quids worth of books. He saw another in the window that he wanted and my sister laddered her tights climbing in to get it for him. All she would go on about was her tights and I was thinking, wow, you met Elton John!
5- Danny la Rue once held the newsagents door open for me.
He was doing the summer season in Torquay and he’d popped in to the newsagents in Brixham to buy a paper. I said thank you and he smiled very sweetly at me.
6- I was almost on the David Letterman Show.
The last time I stayed in New York I stayed in a hotel next to the theatre where his show was filmed. They started the new season the day I arrived and I saw a queue, so I joined it. There were people in the queue from all over the US. You had to apply for a ticket. I got to the front of the queue and the lady on the desk said, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘England’, quoth I. ‘Hang on’, she said, ‘I’ll call the producers’. A couple of men came down, wearing Letterman baseball jackets, and we chatted, and I said I just wanted to see how the show was put together. They asked for a phone number so I gave them my mobile. I said guys I was staying next door. The producer said that his name was also Robert. They seemed very keen that I should come and watch the show but they never called. They never called.
7- I’ve seen UFOs but still don’t believe in them.
Growing up near Heathrow, you get used to aircraft and lights in the sky. One night there we two bright lights just hovering over the airport. It was kind of spooky. They then zipped to the other side of the sky and just hung there. While this was happening, there were no planes taking off or landing. I’ve got my theories, including satellites and surveillance, but if was certainly spooky. The other thing I saw was when I was at middle school, there was something metallic and pyramid shaped high up in the sky, just sat there. I have no idea what it was, but it was real, and I don’t think there were any aliens in it. What’s so fascinating about Staines that you’d travel from the other side of the Galaxy?
8- I was in a plane that ran out of fuel over the Atlantic.
Air Transat, bless them. The pilot said, ‘Personally, I think we can make it, but my first officer advises me that we should stop and take on more fuel’. We landed at Goose Bay military base in Newfoundland. A couple of years later another Air Transat plane ran out of fuel and had to glide to the Azores. Look it up. It’s an amazing story.
9- Two generations of my family were suspected of spying.
During the war, and a blackout during the blitz, my Grandmother in London accidentally let a bonfire flare up again in the back garden. An air raid warden arrested her and she had to appear at court where she swore blind that she wasn’t a German spy.
In the 1970s my dad worked abroad for the Ministry of Defence and when he flew back my mother and his brother went to the military base to wait for him. They decided to wait on the perimeter fence with a pair of binoculars. They were escorted away by the military police. They swore blind that they weren’t Russian spies.
10- My dad, uncle, grandfather and myself, (three generations), all had birthdays on January 2nd.
January 2nd, if you must know.
I’ve been doing spoken word at people for five years or so now and during that time I’ve felt s slow progression and a steady ease with which I communicate the pieces I’m performing. By which I mean, I’ve kind of fallen into a rut. I write a piece, take it to a spoken word night, stand at the microphone and read it to a room full of strangers.
In the most part this is quite a comfortable method of performing. But lately I’ve been asking myself, is it performing? Over the last couple of years I’ve been to a lot of spoken word nights and I’ve seen poets and performers who are compelling and energetic, who communicate the ideas of their work to an appreciative audience.
I’ve started a regime of rehearsals, taking the pieces I wish to perform and memorising the text, which I’ve previously been loath to do. I’m doing it one poem at a time, concentrating on the new material initially. For the last two weeks I’ve been doing my darnedest to memorise a poem which I call ‘Broccoli Philosophy’, and it will get its debut tonight in Exeter. I’ve still not memorised it fully but it gives me much more scope to be more performative with the piece. I have two more pieces which I shall be concentrating on during the next couple of weeks.
But during this process I have learned a valuable lesson, and that’s the realisation that not every piece needs to be learned. A lot of comic potential comes from having the book in my hand, and pretending to be just as surprised as the audience. Therefore I have split my poetry into two definite performance brackets: book and no book. The fact I’m holding a book reinforces the idea that I am supposedly a poet, and this works for poems such as ‘Orgasms’, in which every verse has a humorous pay off. ‘Broccoli Philosophy’ has a much more Bristol style rhythm and rhyme and that works best memorised.
Which brings me to another thing.
You know all that hoo-hah when Dylan went electric? I’ve kind of done that lately with my poetry. I’ve been watching all the young poets, and listening to radio shows such as Laurie Bolger’s excellent Roundhouse Radio show, and analysing what makes a compelling piece. Those which hold the attention, performatively, have a definite rhythm and internal rhyme. ‘Broccoli Philosophy’ makes use of this. And I’ve been taking some old poems which were passable yet not part of my official canon, and rewriting them to give them the same rhythm and rhyme. This also helps me memorise them.
So that’s how things are at the moment. Rhythm and rhyme aid memorisation. This allows me to concentrate on gesture and emotion. Which is what I’ve been working on with my director, Ziggy. It’s an ongoing project and it’s going to take a few months, but right at this moment, I’m really enjoying the process!
I’m back in real life, now. The Edinburgh Fringe is just a dim memory. A strange thing that happened. Of course, I was only there for a week, my friends and colleagues were mostly there for three whole weeks. How must it feel for them? How does it feel for me?
It took a while to adjust to normal life. When I got back to Paignton I kept thinking that the festival was still going on. Whenever I saw crowds of tourists at the chip shop I’d think they were queuing for a show. Posters in the library weren’t for upcoming Free Fringe shows. And it felt weird, walking through the holiday crowds and not handing them flyers.
I came away from Edinburgh with so much. The first thing I came away from with was a headache, but that’s just the eleven hour train ride to get home. The second thing I came away with was an appreciation that not everything that you plan for ever occurs. I didn’t realise the performance space would be so noisy! It was the corner of a very busy bar, not the quiet room that my director and I had assumed during rehearsal. Static has lots of quiet moments and subtlety. It’s hard to be quiet and subtle when there’s a stag party in the room. The other acts were fantastically loud and it was the second day that I decided to concentrate on volume.
But the biggest inspiration came from seeing other shows and talking to the other performers. I’ve got so many ideas for next year now that I’m really looking forward to developing something amazing, with less props. Carrying props around Edinburgh is not fun. Why did they have to build the city on the side of a mountain?
The other idea I had is to apply to have a venue at next year’s fringe. And for the venue to be in Paignton. Imagine how fun that would be! To have the Edinburgh Fringe happen in Paignton. Obviously there would be the question of travel and logistics, but imagine the symbolism.
So I’m back here in civilian life. I miss the camaraderie and the support. The Pilgrim venue staff were excellent and so were the other performers. I made so many new friends, and I’m full of gratitude for the help and advice that they gave me along the final week.